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Engulfed in a fireball during riots, lost an eye and suffered back and leg injuries in a bomb blast, was targeted five times by terrorists and nearly died in a road crash... the extraordinary life of policeman Alan Brown

Hailed as the RUC's most often injured officer, the Dundonald man, who passed away recently, received a British Empire Medal in recognition of his bravery. Ivan Little reports


The terrifying image of RUC officer Alan Brown during a riot in the Bogside in Londonderry

The terrifying image of RUC officer Alan Brown during a riot in the Bogside in Londonderry

The young officer and on his wedding day with wife Sandra

The young officer and on his wedding day with wife Sandra

Alan Brown

Alan Brown

Freddie Parkinson

Kellie Welsh, daughter of the late Alan Brown

Kellie Welsh, daughter of the late Alan Brown

Freddie Parkinson

Alan Brown in his later years

Alan Brown in his later years


The terrifying image of RUC officer Alan Brown during a riot in the Bogside in Londonderry

A former RUC man who was turned into a human fireball during the fierce Battle of the Bogside nearly 50 years ago and who was once described as the most repeatedly injured police officer in Northern Ireland has died.

But Alan Brown's family say they count every day they had with their 'hero' who was nicknamed the bionic policeman, as a blessing.

"I could and should write a book about him," said daughter Kellie Welsh. "I have seen his police records and they show that he had narrow escapes in bombings and gun attacks on a number of other occasions, too."

Mr Brown died suddenly at his home in Dundonald earlier this month and as tributes were paid to him at his funeral it was revealed that he was injured in at least five terrorist attacks.

Seventy-three-year-old Mr Brown, who received a number of awards for his bravery, was captured in shocking images of him being set alight as a petrol bomb was hurled down on him from the top of Rossville Flats during vicious rioting in the Battle of the Bogside which raged from August 12 to August 14 in 1969.

The flames engulfed Mr Brown's upper body and head and his life was only saved when his RUC colleagues managed to get him out of his police helmet whose strap had been melted into his face.

Mr Brown said he thought he was going to die.

But he recovered from his injuries and stayed on in the RUC.

He told this newspaper in September 1980: "I always wanted to be a policeman and the job was just too good to leave."

But after he resumed his duties in Belfast trouble searched him out again and he was hurt in a number of explosions in the city in the 1970s.

Like so many of his colleagues he also came under fire from terrorists at other times.

In the build-up to one IRA attack in Castle Street he was said to have shown exemplary courage after he came to the rescue of people including reporters and photographers who had strayed into a cordoned off area just as a car bomb exploded.

Mr Brown was thrown into the air and he was seriously injured, losing the sight in one eye and sustaining leg and back injuries.

He required specialist care in Moorfields hospital in London.

But his bravery was rewarded in 1975 when he received the British Empire Medal in the New Year's Honours List.

The irony was that Mr Brown who was from Killyleagh in Co Down and a relative of Northern Ireland football star David Healy had initially been refused a job as a policeman because he didn't meet height requirements which were later relaxed.

He was recruited into the B Specials and later joined the regular RUC, becoming a member of the Special Patrol Group who were invariably on the frontline during the earliest days of the troubles.

His brother in law, the Rev Barry Dodds, the retired Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Belfast, said Mr Brown was an "extraordinary man who gave extraordinary service to the people of Northern Ireland".

Reflecting on the Rossville Flats petrol bomb attack, he said that the fuel had been mixed with sugar and soap powder to ensure that the flames would stick to policemen's clothes and skin.

He adds: "Alan went up in flames from his chest through his neck to his head and he was very much in danger of suffocation."

Mr Dodds said that in the Castle Street incident Army bomb disposal teams had carried out a controlled explosion on a device and news teams rushed forward to take photographs thinking that the area was safe.

"Alan knew that was crazy so he got between them and the bomb to drive them back but the bomb went off and he was badly injured.

"He was also hurt in the line of duty on at least five other occasions," says Mr Dodds, who also revealed that the RUC discovered Mr Brown's personal details were once found to be in the hands of the terrorists.

But the only good thing that came out of that, he joked, was that one of the files contained the information that Mr Brown was regularly picked up from his work 'by his daughter' but it was actually his wife, Sandra, who collected him.

Mr Brown who had been a talented footballer in his youth and a trombone player with Killyleagh Silver Band later moved from front line policing and became an inspector in a pioneering training role for the RUC.

But in 1985 fate dealt him another devastating blow and cut short what his brother-in-law said would have been a stellar career in uniform as he approached his 40th birthday. A road accident not far from his home at Dundonald left Mr Brown on a life support machine in ICU for several weeks when doctors feared he wouldn't survive.

However, he did pull through but he was later discharged from the police on medical grounds.

It later emerged that his brain injuries were even more serious than at first suspected and Mr Dodds said it "hadn't been an easy road" for his Sandra to get her husband the care that he needed.

But he says that despite his severe injuries Mr Brown never lost his sense of humour and fun.

Mr Dodds says: "The fitness, the courage and the strength of character which he displayed as a gifted police officer stood him in good stead when confronted with the multiple injuries he had to cope with in the car accident."

Kellie said her father was renowned for embellishing his stories about his exploits in the RUC, telling some people the Castle Street bomb had thrown him 20 yards in the air but assuring others it was 50.

He also said that he had arrested Martin McGuinness during his time in the RUC.

But the family said there was no doubt that Mr Brown was a man who forgave the terrorists that tried to kill him and his colleagues in the RUC, a force of which he was immensely proud.

Kellie said her dad had been pleased to receive his own gallantry award but he was overjoyed when the Queen presented the police with the George Medal in 2000 recognition of the "courage and dedication of the officers of the RUC and their families who shared their hardships".

During his funeral at Roselawn Mr Brown's inspector's cap was carried into the church ahead of his coffin which was draped in an RUC flag.

Scores of people who were at Roselawn later attended a service at Dundonald Elim Church where Pastor Malcolm Duncan praised Mr Brown's bravery.

The Pastor said the ex-RUC man never complained and revealed that young people from the church were spellbound as Mr Brown, a devoted Christian, told them about his life and about how he forgave his attackers.

Kellie said her family including her brother Geoff, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, are all proud of their father not only for his service to the police but also because he showed such resilience and fortitude after all his setbacks.

"Some people called him the Bionic Man because he had suffered so much. I don't know how he did it. I remember he broke bones in his feet in an accident but he was up and about within a very short time. It was miraculous," she adds.

His wife of 52 years Sandra said of her husband: "To know him was to love him."

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