... now read the extracts from the new book which pays tribute to the incredible bravery of those who put themselves in harm's way to help others
... now read the extracts from the new book which pays tribute to the incredible bravery of those who put themselves in harm's way to help others
‘I had no thoughts as to whether this was a shocking incident... we were doing our job’
Ken Ramsey joined the retained service in Enniskillen in 1976
On November 8, 1987, a Provisional IRA bomb exploded near the Cenotaph in Enniskillen during the town's Remembrance Day service. Twelve people died and 63 were injured.
Normally I would be down at the war memorial early, but that year I had torn the ligaments in my leg playing football, so I was late. The bomb went off and I was a good distance away, but not that far so I started to run towards it. I met a policeman and asked him what had happened. He said: "A bomb's gone off, Ken, and no warning."
I said, "Are people hurt?"
He said, "A lot, a lot", so I turned round and ran to the fire station. We have a direct line to our control room and I picked it up and I told the control operator that a no-warning bomb had gone off. This was minutes, moments, after it had exploded. I told the control room that there were a lot of casualties and a building had collapsed. The operator told me to stay there. She set off the alarms and the first crew came in and I stayed on the phone - it was more important for me to stay on the phone. She asked me for as much information as I could give her because they were assessing the situation, even at this early stage, to see if it was a major incident. Then I went off and started helping at the scene up the street.
I remember black clouds of dust and the usual panic among people. We came up behind the first crew that had arrived - an officer in charge of that crew was making plans. The building had collapsed on top of lots of people so you had a lot of crush injuries. There was a metal railing that had trapped people. I was given orders and told what to do, and then I was given a crew and I gave them orders as to what to do and the best way to do it. We had to form a wedge because there were hundreds of people trying to help those who were trapped, but they were climbing over things, they were pulling at things. There was no order, there was no discipline, so we had to very carefully get a line in between them and make use of people in the best way. "You do this", "You do that", "Be careful of this", "Just get in there", - we were supervising and directing all of the rescuers and then ourselves as well. We were doing what we had been trained to do. I didn't have any thoughts as to whether this was a shocking incident or the scale of it - we were just doing our job and concentrating on getting people out and helping them to stay alive.
As time went by I remember stepping back to look round. You're continually assessing, and you're looking at the rest of the building, thinking, is it going to fall on the rescuers? So two or three of us were tasked with keeping an eye on the building. We were doing a bit then watching the building and everything else. People were running towards us - "Did you see this?" "Did you see that?"
In the middle of all this I remember watching a primary school child who was just standing still. Someone who stands still in a panic situation sticks out. Everyone else was running around but this child was just standing there and I remember thinking to myself, what's that child doing there? I went down to him and I said, "Are you okay?" I was trying to figure out if he was injured when he said, "I lost my uncle." I think he had been brought to lay a wreath for the school at the war memorial because he was quite close to it at the time the bomb went off. So I said, "You stand here with me," and I reached down and he held my hand. I'm standing in the middle of all this just holding this child's hand, talking to him. I said, "You'll be okay - someone will be along to collect you in a little while," and then through the crowd I saw this man running in absolute panic. He came running up and he was shouting and I realised he was shouting at the boy. Even in that situation part of my mind was saying, I've got to make sure this man is with the child. You can't just hand over a child. So I said, "Are you a relative of this child?" and he said, "Yes, I'm his uncle." He was kind of angry with me. But I knew this man to see - not exactly who he was but to see - so I gave the child to him and he grabbed him up in his arms and fled out through the rubble and the mayhem.
We worked on. I remember there was a casualty on the ground and someone was down beside them, about to put a coat over their head. I said, "I'm not sure - how do you know that person's dead?" I pulled the coat back and looked at the person and thought there was something; that they weren't dead. I started to shout: "Is there a doctor? I need a doctor" - you just shout out, you know. There's no central station where you go and dial "I need a doctor". These two guys came through the crowd and they were Army doctors - well, one of them was and the other was his medical orderly. I realised by the way they were working with the casualty that he was very desperately hurt, but they kept him alive for five more minutes, ten more minutes. I remember watching them - I was making sure nobody bothered them and that nothing would fall on them either - and I remember thinking to myself, if I get hurt these are the guys I want. They were absolutely phenomenally good.
A colleague came along and I was talking to him when I saw one of our crew, a firefighter, standing still in the middle of the street. I went over and I said, "Seamus, are you okay?" Then he pointed down and he was standing with his feet on either side of a body part, the most essential part a person can have. It was just sitting on the ground between his feet. I said: "Okay, don't move, stay there. I'll come back." So I went looking and I found a young police officer and I said: "Have you got bags for body parts?" He ran to a police car and he came back with a plastic body-parts bag. There's a special way to hold this sort of bag: you fold the opening around your hands so that you and the body part don't make contact and don't get contaminated. We made him hold the bag like that and we lifted the body part up and set it inside, and as we did that he fainted, he just started to go. We knew just looking at him, so we moved to each side of him and we linked under his arms and we held him up and he came to after a few seconds. He was apologising, saying: "Guys, I'm sorry. I didn't expect that; I didn't know." We just said, "It's okay, don't worry." We made sure he was okay and then he went away with the bag.
Shortly after, I met my cousin who was in the security forces and he was looking for his wife. His wife was in, I think, the Red Cross or the St John Ambulance. She was at the Cenotaph when the bomb exploded and he couldn't find her. He asked me if I had seen her and I said I hadn't. He was really distressed and panicking. He said: "I've been to the hospital, Ken, I can't find her in the hospital." If you can't find someone in the hospital, either they're somewhere at the scene or they're in the morgue. I told him that there was a temporary morgue in the Territorial Army base so he went there. Later, he came back and found me again and said, "I found her, she's alive, I found her, Ken."
There were two ladies in Enniskillen whose house was right opposite the War Memorial. Everyone in the town called them the Miss Kavanaghs. They had opened their doors to help and I walked a casualty over to their house. It was someone covered with blood but who was walking and fit to move around. There were injured people on chairs in the ladies' kitchen and medics and the Miss Kavanaghs were treating people there. I remember looking at the floor and it was completely red with blood. Those two ladies were absolutely brilliant and I never found out how they got cleaned up or what happened after or who talked to them or thanked them or what.
We were sad, really sad. This was an incident that happened when we thought we were heading for peace, things were rolling that way...
I was, and still am, full of admiration for the Enniskillen people and deeply respect the families who lost their fathers and mothers and sons and uncles and aunts. Some of them were very young but I buried all that a long time ago in my head; I had to.
In the days after it happened I went home from work to get changed into my fire service uniform, went to a funeral, came back to work, went to another funeral, and that went on for nearly a week.
'It wasn't a hardened terrorist I was seeing but an injured young woman crying for her mammy'
Aubrey Crawford spent all of his service in Londonderry and had a horrifying experience of the Troubles very early in his career, in December 1974
I joined the brigade in April 1974. We trained for nine weeks then were appointed to our various watches. I was Red Watch and on the day in question we'd had lunch and were preparing to go out on afternoon duties, whatever those might have been at the time. There were a number of us standing in the duty office, including Divisional Commander Charlie Bell. We heard this dull explosion and out the window we could see smoke curling from the window of a building close to the fire station.
Without even going through the control room, Charlie Bell told us to proceed to the incident.
As we rushed up the stairs we could hear this young woman screaming. I was one of the first to get to the top of the stairs and the scene that met us was horrendous. We thought there had possibly been a gas explosion - but we soon learned what this young lady had been doing.
A guy, the bomb maker, had made letter bombs and she was there to take them to the post office and post them. As she'd been packing these bombs into her bag, they'd exploded and the scene that met us will live with me forever.
This young lady had awful injuries - the sort of appalling damage that only a bomb can inflict. It was horrendous just to look. The tips of her fingers had all been blown off and they were a bloody mess.
Before joining the brigade I had been in nursing and the crew knew that I had a bit of experience, so I was left, and I mean left, to render first aid, which was very difficult. In fact, I remember Charlie Bell coming up the stairs to ask what had happened. I had covered the young lady to try to stop her seeing the injuries that she had - and when I showed them to Charlie Bell he put up his hands and turned away. He too left and I had to deal with this young lady.
Waiting on the ambulance to come seemed to take forever. Eventually it arrived and the young lady was put on a stretcher and taken down the stairs. I was ordered by Charlie Bell to go in the ambulance with Dr McCabe - who was the brigade doctor at the time and had come on the scene - and a local priest who had been passing. We all three of us went in the ambulance. The priest was administering the Last Rites. Dr McCabe and myself were trying to do what we could and it was quite limited. But the thing that I do remember, and you'll forgive me if I get upset: to this day I can still hear that young lady crying out in pain.
It wasn't a hardened terrorist that I was seeing; she was a young woman with horrendous injuries and the only thing that she cried for was her mammy. She never lost consciousness as we travelled in the ambulance and I was at her side until we got to the emergency unit in Altnagelvin Hospital, where hospital staff took over.
When people were injured in road accidents and fires, we had an interest in how they were progressing. We heard that the young woman lived for five days but unfortunately died from her injuries. I spoke to staff at the hospital and someone told me that it was nearly a blessing for her because her injuries were such that she would have suffered in a very bad way had she survived. I remember some people saying to me that she got all that she deserved - she was going to deliver letter bombs that were going to injure someone somewhere else. I accept that was the case but whenever I was dealing with it, to me she was just a young woman crying for her mammy.
That was a really bad experience. At the time I was a very young fireman - I wasn't a hardened person seeing this.
The worst I would have seen before then was dressing a wound when I was nursing - nothing compared to what I met on that day.
It really affected me. In the fire brigade at night, if there are no calls, you're allowed to go to bed and the boys said that for months after it I was having nightmares. In those days you were permitted to go to bed after eleven and I would normally have wandered off, but for months after that incident I never went to the dormitory on my own because, when I looked out of the dormitory window, I could see the building where all of this had happened. It had a very severe impact on me. I'm talking about something that happened forty years ago, and I still get upset.
It's embarrassing and I try not to talk to a lot of people about it because I know that somewhere along the line I will get upset."
‘I carried the child to a waiting ambulance , but he was dead’
Charlie McAuley joined the full-time service in 1978
I served in Belfast right across the stations from when I joined in August 1978 up to March 1995. I had a number of promotions inside that time and I was at the rank of station officer. A job came up in a rural area in Ballymoney. I'm originally from north Antrim and I thought, this is an ideal opportunity to try to get back to where I came from. My parents were still alive and lived on the farm and my brothers still owned farms in that direction, so I thought that's an ideal way to go. I applied for and got the job as the local fire officer in the Ballymoney area in March 1995. I spent a lot of time up there - in fact I stayed in that area until I retired in 2012.
There were a number of notable incidents during my time up there. One particularly difficult incident was in July 1998, on the 11th night into the Twelfth morning. I'd been on duty that weekend. As the local fire officer, on that night you expect to get a number of calls to various types of incidents mainly around and associated with bonfires, like fire spread and heat impinging on nearby premises. The first call came in at about 10 o'clock, and I went to that and then several other calls in Garvagh, Coleraine and Ballymena. It was a busy evening up to maybe about two or three in the morning, when the last of the calls I had dealt with were finished. I came home and I thought, 'That's it now, it's quietened down so I'll go to bed.'
I was about ready to get into bed when my pager went off and it said, 'Turn out to petrol bomb attack, Carnany Estate, Ballymoney.' I was living in Ballymoney at the time and I knew exactly where that was, so I got dressed but just before I left, the phone rang and it was our control room. They said to treat this as 'persons reported. We have had several calls to say the house is well alight.' I got into the car. I knew where the engines would be coming from - I could actually hear them in the distance - so I drove out to where I knew I could rendezvous with them. They had obviously got the same information and as they were coming they could see the smoke rising.
We pulled up to the little square at the top of the street and there were a number of people - maybe about 10 people - who appeared to be arguing and fighting and shouting, and there were a number of police officers there trying to control them. It was obvious that there was a severe fire burning. I got out of the car, pulled on my fire tunic and my gloves and went to the front door with the fire crew. I arrived with two full crews - 12 firefighters on hand immediately. We could hear shouting - "There's kids in the house." One crew was deployed to the rear of the property because that was where the main fire was. Myself and the sub officer, we went to the front door, which was open. I think the police had made an attempt to get in and couldn't - beaten back by the heat and smoke. Two firefighters were already wearing breathing apparatus (ba). They were right behind us and, taking a line of hose, they went in. We were told then that there were children upstairs, so the first two firefighters went in and up the stairs, another two I asked to get ready and put on breathing apparatus and they were doing that. Within a very short time - less than a couple of minutes - the first firefighters came back down with a child. They handed that child to me and I carried him up the street to where there was an ambulance waiting and I placed him inside. He was dead.
The second BA team had gone in and, when I arrived back down at the front door, they appeared down the stairs with another child and placed him in my arms. I carried him up the street and placed him beside his brother in the back of the ambulance and went back down to the door. Then the first breathing apparatus team who had gone in appeared with a third child and gave him to me and I carried him to the ambulance. They were also both dead.
We had been told there were four children in the house and the third BA team were then rigged in BA and sent in to search the house. Meantime the firefighters at the back had quelled the fire - they had hit it hard and it was out. We searched that house top to bottom and we couldn't find a fourth child. We later learnt th at the fourth child hadn't stayed there - he had stayed with another relative. We extinguished the fire, completed the search and searched the adjacent properties. Nothing else was found. We handed the scene over to police, left and went back to the fire station. It's a very difficult scenario - to go with the intent and the aspiration of rescuing people; of getting to people to get them out and to a place of safety, but obviously we couldn't do that. The children were dead. They were all just wee primary school kids.
The firefighters in Ballymoney Fire Station had formed very close relationships. They'd had a serious tragedy themselves. A few years earlier at the fire station, a firefighter had lost his life, so they were a very close-knit group of individuals who served under the command of their local sub officer, Di Getty. He was a fantastic individual, a fantastic firefighter, and a very strong character in terms of being able to deal with any difficulties within the station.
When we left the scene and came back to the fire station the first things that had to be done were the mundane jobs - replenish the engine, BAs, etc.
I arranged with our welfare officer for counselling for any firefighters if they felt it necessary but I think the main thing was that comradeship, that camaraderie that we had as a group - we could talk to each other and be open and honest with each other. We did that and we went on with getting ourselves ready for the next fire call.
These were all part-time firefighters - retained firefighters - and they lived and worked in the community, so once a fire call was over and done with they went back to their own homes, back to their own jobs and carried on with their own lives.
But I felt that particular morning that I needed to speak to them all individually, make sure everybody was okay, and collectively we sat down together - we had a cuppa before everybody left the station. I also arranged for the welfare officer to speak to all of them individually, those immediately engaged in the incident.
There were so many instances where innocents lost lives and that is just an indictment of our society - that we put up with this for so long, for so many years.
I thought about that incident recently and, while it impacted on me terribly, that pales into insignificance compared to the impact it must have had on that mother, or on the brother that survived because he hadn't been in the house.
Those little kids would be in their 20s or 30s now, could very well have been parents themselves. I just can't comprehend how the family dealt with that. I remember the funerals, with the three wee white coffins being carried through the street in Ballymoney, and that just wrecks me."