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Firefighters of Belfast: I saw things I thought I would never have to

Bloody Friday: Extracts are taken from the new book Firefighters of Belfast: The Fire Service During the Troubles 1969-1994, written by Brian Allaway

Gruesome scene: a firefighter a at the scene of an explosion during Bloody Friday
Gruesome scene: a firefighter a at the scene of an explosion during Bloody Friday
Oxford Street bus station

Friday, July 21, 1972, was a fine summer's day. I was on duty at Chichester Street fire station and had been rostered for the pump escape along with Ken Spence. This fire engine had a removable 50-foot ladder fitted with wheels to enable quick deployment for rescues from upper floors. It also carried the station officer, so it always went first to any incident, other than known small fires.

For this reason, I was expecting a relatively busy day. After a reasonably quiet morning, we got a call for a full attendance to the Albert Bridge, where we found an explosive device in the supports under the bridge. It was while we were standing by at this location that the carnage started, and we heard the unmistakable rumbling bang of a bomb, quickly followed by many others, so many we lost count.

Soon, there were several palls of smoke over the city and we started to get our appliances drawn away to deal with what was going on. The pump escape was the last one to be taken from the stand-by and committed to the mayhem.

Ken remembers: "I was 200 yards away from the main event ... really, we were screened from that (the Oxford Street bomb), but the rest of the guys, who were in the station, weren't screened and they took the full force of what was going on, in terms of the bomb and in terms of the trauma. What we had seen that day was enough for anybody, you know?"

In all, 20 devices were detonated in just over an hour. Nine people were killed and 130 were injured. A car bomb at Oxford Street bus station killed four bus workers and two soldiers, and two women and a schoolboy were killed by another car-bomb on the Cavehill Road.

Some of the bodies were so badly mutilated in these two explosions that it was initially thought a greater number of people had died. The targets included Smithfield bus station, railway terminals in Great Victoria Street and York Street, Queen's Bridge, an M2 fly-over bridge, railway bridges at Botanic Avenue, Windsor Park football ground, Finaghy Road North, gas department offices, garages in Donegall Street and the Upper Lisburn Road, the Brookvale Hotel, a bar in the docks area, a taxi office on the Crumlin Road, an electricity transformer in Salisbury Avenue and shops on the Limestone Road.

It was "impossible for anyone to feel perfectly safe... there were cries of terror from people who thought they had found sanctuary, but were in fact just as exposed as before."

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A Fire Brigade spokesman said: "Everyone was stunned and shocked to see such carnage, but our men did a great job. The control room was chaotic and, in the streets, our appliances were hampered by traffic jams, which got worse by the minute."

A woman who had just crossed the Cavehill Road when a bomb detonated said: "There were flames and then, when they seemed to have died away, there was nothing but only glass and blood."

Firefighters, as well as assisting the wounded at several bombs, had a large fire to deal with, as one of the explosions set fire to premises in Donegall Street. Hundreds of people were evacuated as firefighters fought the fire, attempting to stop it spreading to the nearby Irish News offices.

A second difficult fire was caused by a car bomb at a petrol station on the Lisburn Road. Firefighters fought the fire but were driven back on several occasions by the intense heat and small explosions caused by the petrol, before they were finally able to extinguish it.

The sheer intensity and scale of this IRA blitz was unprecedented and the task of the authorities was not aided by the high number of hoax bomb scares. In the city centre, the security forces started sealing off streets identified by callers, but as the calls increased almost by the minute the opportunities for fleeing office workers and shoppers to escape were reduced as numerous streets had to be cordoned off.

Hysterical and confused secretaries and shoppers ran up and down streets showered with glass from broken windows and fires broke out in many premises following explosions. Ambulance and fire crews, negotiating their way with difficulty through traffic jams, soon made their way to the dead and injured as thousands tried to make a speedy exit from the city centre.

Bus and train services were cancelled and people could be seen lining the pavements, frantically hitching lifts out of the city. Soon, a thick pall of black smoke hung over Belfast, along with the regular thud of a bomb exploding.

Although police, ambulance and fire crews were hampered in their efforts by crowds of people running through debris-littered streets and escaping motorists blocking main roads, they emerged with considerable credit for their efforts that Friday afternoon.

Several reports referred to the professional approach of the emergency services. An Observer journalist focused on the casual, "matter-of-fact air" of the fire service workers, who "picked up the dead in big, wide shovels until they got to the smaller pieces, when they used their hands". A News Letter reporter observed: "The tell-tale emotional giveaways manifested themselves in the drooped heads, the sloped shoulders, the drawn faces and the occasional tear."

The bus station manager was leaning against the 100lb car bomb when it detonated. He later told the inquest that he had just walked up to the car along with two soldiers and put his hand on the bonnet: "As I leaned across the car, it exploded. The blast hurled me through the air and blew off my clothes. I finished up on the roof of the offices. There was smoke and dust everywhere, but someone pulled me clear and saved my life. I was severely burned and had bad injuries to my legs and body."

Firefighters from Chichester Street were there to help:

"The bomb went off in Oxford Street. It blew us off our feet in the yard. We ran out anyway. We had hose out of the hose store and started lifting up bodies and stuff," said Jimmy Armstrong.

"The most serious incident I was at was probably the Oxford Street bombing on Bloody Friday - and I wasn't even in firefighting kit," said Ken Harper. "I had just been made a leading fireman in fire safety and I was on my way back from teaching people fire drills in Donegall Street when, as I turned round to face Musgrave Street, the whole of the bus station just blew out in front of me.

"I heard another bomb going off somewhere else behind me. At that time we were leaving our firefighting kit under our desks to man the spare pump, so I was making my way back as quick as I could to change into my kit.

"As I went I couldn't ignore a man who was lying in the middle of Oxford Street. He had his arm up and he was calling. I went over and I took him in my arms and held him until the fire brigade and the ambulance arrived. I was trying to comfort him, but I could feel rattles coming from his body. He obviously had bones broken, but I helped him up on to the stretcher and put him into the ambulance along with the ambulance crew."

A group of junior firefighters had just finished two years of training and were expecting to be taking part in their passing out parade that day:

"That was my last day in the school," said Stanley Spray. "We were polishing all our gear; the appliances were shining, ready for us to have a passing out parade, or inspection. We knew that there was something going on in Belfast because we could hear explosions going off. Central's appliances were out and those were the appliances we were going to use for our passing out parade.

"An explosion went off pretty close to where we were and the chief officer at the time, Robert Mitchell, came in and said, 'Look guys, your day has been cancelled. I would advise you to come away from the windows, because there's a lot of stuff kicking off out there.'

"We had just walked out of the classroom when the Oxford Street bomb went off. It was just across the road from where we had been standing. As we walked out of the classroom door, the glass came flying in around us, the slates came rolling, sliding, off the roof. We ran up the outside balcony, down the stairs and stood in the yard, a bit shaken up. So, we were really the only people there, a few of the training school, the fire safety guys and some of the guys that were over in the workshops, and we sort of congregated in the yard, not knowing what to do."

"So, anyway the next thing Bumper Young came over, the driving instructor, and he handed me a first aid kit and said, 'It's time you were out there trying to give a bit of help. See if you can do anything'. Obviously, he didn't know how bad the situation was. I don't think he would have sent us out if he had known. So, we all walked out carrying this stuff, walked round into Oxford Street and it was just mayhem. I saw things that day that I never ever thought I would have to see; it was raw. The bus station itself was still on fire; at that time there were no appliances there. So, we were sort of wandering about in all the rubble. There was really nothing we could do; we had no firefighting equipment with us at the time. Then an appliance did turn up, I think they were from Holywood, or Bangor. They got water on to the building. I remember coming outside and walking with Davey Page.

"There was a red brick wall just before a set of railings and, as we got to the red brick wall, there was a guy lying with his back against the wall. I went over to him with Davey and I bent down to see if he was okay and, just as I got down, he reached out and he grabbed the hold of me and the first thing he said to me was, 'What time is it?' Those are words that I'll never forget. Just those four words, 'What time is it?' I didn't know what time it was, so I said, 'Well, it's three o'clock'. I just had a guess. He said, 'Oh, dear. I've missed my bus.' He hadn't realised what had happened to him.

"We sort of patched him up a bit and the ambulance guys came over, lifted him up, and we were able to walk him on to an ambulance. We walked on up to the railings where the explosion had gone off, just to the right of it, just where the door was, where the bus drivers went in at the end of the shift. If you can imagine, like an egg-slicer, the soldiers who had got out of their Land Rover were walking up the side of the railings between the bomb and the railings, the bomb had gone off and they were blown through the railings.

"So, they were just mashed as they went through this set of iron railings and their bodies were lying on the other side of the railings. So, we went in round there and we started picking bits up and we put them into bags. Then we came back outside and started to help tackle the fire inside the building itself."

As the emergency services couldn't transport all of the casualties to hospital, due to the sheer number of dead and injured people, a first aid post was established in the engine room of Chichester Street fire station. Firefighters who were between incidents, including Ken and I, worked with the injured trying to stabilise them until they could be taken to hospital.

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