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Where there's fire...

They had a reputation for running towards burning buildings at the height of the Troubles while others fled in terror. Now, ex-firefighter John Wilson has turned the testimonies of dozens of his former colleagues into a remarkable book chronicling their heroism. Ivan Little reports


Horrendous scene: firefighters tackle the blaze following the La Mon hotel bombing in February, 1978

Horrendous scene: firefighters tackle the blaze following the La Mon hotel bombing in February, 1978

John Wilson

John Wilson

Dickie Sefton

Dickie Sefton

Brave men: firefighters Desy Moynes and his young cousin John Nicholl

Brave men: firefighters Desy Moynes and his young cousin John Nicholl

Horrendous scene: firefighters tackle the blaze following the La Mon hotel bombing in February, 1978

The unsung firefighting heroes who risked their lives to save hundreds of other people after bombings and arson attacks in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles have shared their harrowing stories for the first time in a powerful new book.

No fewer than 34 former firefighters have spoken to author John Wilson, who wanted to chronicle the bravery and the sacrifices of the courageous crews who, without regard for themselves, often ran towards burning buildings as others ran away to safety.

Among the moving accounts that John has collated is one from a fireman who was given the Last Rites as his cousin lay dead beside him in a collapsed building, and the story of a devastated officer who carried the bodies of the three Quinn children from their fire-ravaged home in Ballymoney in 1998 after a loyalist petrol bomb attack.

Sadly, two of the firefighters featured in the book have died recently, one of them only a few days ago.

But John, who was "humbled" by an up-close-and-personal visit with New York fire teams to Ground Zero a short time after 9/11, says he's glad that he was able to capture for posterity the heroism of Hugh Kennedy, from Londonderry, and Dickie Sefton, from Belfast.

Mr Sefton, who in his final years had to speak with the aid of an electronic machine after his voice box was removed, told John how he was set alight on the first night of the Troubles in Belfast when he unwittingly drove his unmarked fire car into a riot.

After two petrol bombs were thrown into the vehicle, he heard rioters arguing. One said Mr Sefton was a fire officer and not a policeman, but the other shouted: "Doesn't matter. Let the b****** burn."

However, after Mr Sefton got out of the inferno, a local woman beat out the flames from his face with her bare hands.

John Wilson was a firefighter for 30 years, from 1981, working mainly in Belfast, but he has shied away from recording his own memories in the book, preferring instead to concentrate on the ordeals his colleagues had to face day and daily in the hottest of Northern Ireland's hot-spots.

He says that he was determined to reflect what happened to firefighters right across the province, including part-time officers, who were full-time in everything but name, such were the demands on their time presented by terrorists.

John didn't set out to become a firefighter of his own volition, but rather because his mother told him to get a job.

It was a maternal push, he says, for which he will be forever grateful.

He says he was excited to report to Belfast's Central Station in Chichester Street and knew right away that it was somewhere he wanted to be, working alongside "aul' hands", who had many years in the job behind them as well as the wit, the savvy and often the scars to prove it.

He also says he quickly realised he was working with "some very brave people".

But it's only recently that he has found out just how courageous some of his colleagues were.

One such man is Desy Moynes, who didn't share his horrific experiences with John until he approached him to help him with the book.

Desy, who was a retained officer in Armagh before coming to Belfast, had answered a call to a still-unexplained fire in a disused shop in Upper English Street in the cathedral city with his 19-year-old second cousin, John Nicholl, who died when the building collapsed on top of them, making him the youngest firefighter ever to be killed on duty in the British Isles.

John says: "Desy had never revealed too many of the details of that night to anyone, but he told me how he had been trapped in the shop for a number of hours before he was pulled from the wreckage. He knew that John, who was right beside him, hadn't been so lucky.

"Listening to Desy telling that story and knowing the toll his cousin's death took on him was one of the hardest parts of the research for the book.

"The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when I think back to Desy telling me how he discovered, years later, that a priest had been brought down to where he and his young relation were trapped to give the Last Rites, because they didn't think they could get them out before the entire structure fell on top of them.

"The priest later revealed that the plea for him to go to the scene of the fire came from soldiers who knocked on his door in the middle of the night."

John says that if John Nicholl had been killed in England, people would still be talking about it 43 years later.

"But over here, it was in the headlines for a few days and then it was forgotten about. But there are a couple of things being investigated that might maybe redress the balance. I know Desy is pressing for a fitting memorial," says John, who's convinced it's a miracle that the number of firefighters who became victims of the Troubles didn't reach double figures.

"When you think of all the times we turned out to deal with fires that were started by bombs and incendiaries, it defies logic that more officers weren't killed by secondary devices.

"I can remember more than one occasion when we were standing beside bombs that didn't go off, or ones that did explode. There must have been angels on our shoulders," adds John, who was involved in the development of a recent - but separately produced - documentary for BBC Northern Ireland, called Firefighters on the Frontline.

John adds that his Blackstaff Press-commissioned book contains interviews with upwards of 10 firefighters whom he knew personally and he used his contacts to find the rest of his interviewees from all over Northern Ireland.

"It's been a privilege to meet so many fearless officers. Obviously, there were distressing and sombre reflections and tears, but I didn't want the book to be a procession of old men crying.

"So, there are lighter moments along the way too, because the camaraderie and banter were important to keep morale up during the darkest days."

Many of the names of Northern Ireland's most gruesome terrorist bombings, including the Abercorn, La Mon, McGurk's, Enniskillen and the Shankill, figure prominently in the recollections in John's book.

And a former fire officer and councillor in Omagh, Paddy McGowan, told John that the 1998 bombing in the town, which killed 29 people, including a mother who was pregnant with twins, was the worst scene of carnage he had ever witnessed.

Mr McGowan, who managed the local bus depot in Omagh, used all his experience as a fireman to organise transport within his fleet to take dozens of injured people to hospital.

"It showed that, even though he had left the fire service, his instincts never left him," says John, who was also deeply impacted by his meeting with Ballymoney firefighter Charlie McAuley, who fought back tears as he talked about one of the worst nights in the town's history, in July 1998, when three young Quinn brothers died in a loyalist petrol bomb attack on their home during a Drumcree stand-off.

"Charlie recounted evocatively how he brought the boys one by one to the ambulance knowing that they had all died in the blaze," says John, who adds that he didn't want to give the impression in his book that fire service personnel were the only ones who suffered during the Troubles.

"I know there were other people who had devastating and catastrophic experiences."

He says he escaped relatively unscathed during the Troubles, adding: "I had a few cuts and a few burns. But mostly I got away with it. It wasn't down to skill, or good planning on the ground.

"It was largely due to good fortune."

John recalls how bulletproof glass had to be installed in the Central Fire Station in Belfast because snipers used to repeatedly open up on police and soldiers manning sangers in Chichester Street, but missed their intended targets. Rioters also routinely attacked firefighters in areas considered too dangerous for the RUC, or the Army.

John says: "The fire engines were so pockmarked by stones and bricks, which punctured the metal structures of the vehicles, that we used to liken them to Tetley tea-bags that were famous for their hundreds of tiny perforations.

"People regularly ask me if I was frightened and, of course, I was. You would have had to be a complete idiot not to have been terrified from time to time, but the adrenalin pumped through our veins and I think we all frequently got a buzz out of what we were doing.

"But we had to keep reminding ourselves that, no matter where we were, there were victims - someone whose house had been destroyed, or who'd had their business wrecked by a bomb. You had to retain the sense that someone was always hurting."

John says that many men and women who escaped with few physical injuries still bear mental issues.

"A lot of them were wrecked by what they had to carry on their shoulders. Many people say there should have been more support and blame managers for its absence. But I don't think that's fair.

"Our bosses were not desk jockeys; they also responded to calls where they saw some awful things and they knew what everyone was dealing with.

"I think it was more of a cultural thing of the time; that you had to keep a stiff upper lip and be strong, as opposed to looking vulnerable. Undoubtedly, it would have been better if there'd been support sooner, but it wasn't on the radar back then."

Other firefighters say in the book that it was the sort of thinking that was prevalent throughout the emergency services in the early days of the Troubles, when officers returned from the front line to work through their ordeals with the help of a whiskey bottle.

Working as a firefighter was an eye-opener to many young officers with no knowledge of the realities of Northern Ireland.

Former firefighter Joe McKee, who's now a well-known figure in Northern Ireland music circles, told John Wilson that a colleague once brought a dog from a blaze in west Belfast and gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the garden of the house.

Joe said that a hostile crowd gathered after the sectarian petrol bombing and pointed out to the rescuer that it was "a Catholic dog" he was trying to save. "Joe said he'd never really heard that sort of talk before and that the crowd really did believe that the dog had a religious affiliation," says John.

  • Firefighters during the Troubles by John Wilson is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £12.99

Belfast Telegraph