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Thirty years ago veteran NI firefighter Paul Burns was battling to find survivors of Armenia’s earthquake in temperatures of minus 25... now he’s made an emotional return visit to the scene of a disaster he’ll never forget

The 75-year-old who now lives in Groomsport tells Mark Bain about his heroic career and coping with the emotional fall-out of being an eyewitness to horror

Retired Firefighter Paul Burns who has returned to Groomsport having spent 55 years working in England
Retired Firefighter Paul Burns who has returned to Groomsport having spent 55 years working in England
Paul with the president of Armenia Armen Sarkissian
The Armenia earthquake
Paul at home

On December 7, 1988 a devastating earthquake hit the then-USSR state of Armenia, killing more than 25,000 people. Five days later, Belfast firefighter Paul Burns found himself in the Armenian city of Spitak as one of the first western aid volunteers to arrive behind the Iron Curtain as the Cold War drew to a close.

It was the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, and for the first time the Soviet Union reached out to the rest of the world for help.

At the time, Paul was divisional officer with the Lancashire Fire Service, and he spent two weeks in the devastated country leading the UK response.

During his career Paul was called on to fly out to crisis zones all around the globe; his first was a major earthquake in Italy in 1980, and he was also working amid the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in the USA which killed 168 people.

Now back home in Northern Ireland - he lives in Groomsport - and reflecting on his career, he says that it was the Armenian earthquake that made the most lasting impression. Indeed, earlier this month Paul felt compelled to return to Spitak and see what changes the intervening 30 years had wrought on the city.

"I'm an old man now but I promised myself I would go back," he says. "The earthquake had obliterated the place. The people found it quite extraordinary that we would come from the West into Soviet territory to give aid. They just couldn't comprehend that. We were, they were told, the enemy. But that drove us forward. We were doing something extraordinary at the end of the Cold War.

"Politically, it was important. This was our meagre contribution.

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"When I arrived in the city of Spitak there were no buildings left, just rubble as far as the eye could see. There was the beauty of the mountains, the sun glinting on the snow, but when you cast your eyes down you'd see this horrible picture of fires and smoke rising, some people picking around here and there to find memorabilia from families and homes, a sense of aimlessness. There seemed no future."

In a city swelled by 10,000 refugees amid civil unrest rife across the Soviet Union to more 35,000 inhabitants, more than half the residents were killed in the earthquake.

Paul recalls: "Women and men would regularly come up to me and produce photographs of their family. They would tug at my uniform and I knew they wanted me to come. They would bring me to somewhere that was absolutely flat and point to where their family was. A lot of the time there was simply nothing that could be done.

"You were praying for the retrieval of someone alive, not for the glory of it but simply because of what a miracle would do for a family somewhere. But it was a recovery operation. In those temperatures you would freeze to death. From a practical point of view all we could do was retrieve bodies."

One incident in particular has stayed with Paul.

"There was a man who'd been working in his butcher's shop," he recalls. "We found him entombed in very heavy concrete columns. The family were insistent, no matter what, that we were to recover as much of the remains as possible. I gave orders that the man was to be retrieved in as dignified a manner as possible, but in the end that wasn't possible. His remains had to be removed in large parts and that's an extraordinary thing to have to do. I'd never done it in my career before and never have since. The job of removing that man was horrific."

That gruesome task fell to fellow firefighter Reggie Berry (now 69) who accompanied Paul back to Spitak on the 30th anniversary.

Mr Berry told a BBC Radio 4 documentary: "I remember what I did and excuse me for speaking bluntly, we simply couldn't get his lower body out. I cut him in half at the waist with a shovel. His relatives were extremely grateful as all they wanted was to give him a Christian burial. People were coming over and shaking our hands, thanking us. But all I could think was I've just cut your grandfather in half with a shovel."

Paul continues: "We were all agreed that, particularly as it was Christmas time, if we could simply return a loved one there could be no finer work than that."

But the conditions Paul was working in during his two weeks in Spitak were almost impossible.

"I'd already been to an earthquake in Italy and was one of the few officers in the UK with experience. It's something I'd always taken a great interest in. So when I got a call from the leader of Lancashire Council, now Dame Louise Ellman MP, I said yes. I've always lived my life thinking the chance of adventure was not something to turn away from. It was a very quick response, particularly to go the 10,000 miles into the Soviet Union at that time."

Paul started his firefighting life in Lisburn as a raw recruit in 1961, moving on to Chichester Street in Belfast where he spent five years. His family were originally from the Falls Road area of Belfast but had relocated to Lurgan after the Blitz during the Second World War. Paul was one of only a handful of Catholic boys in the Fire Service when he joined.

"That was never something that bothered me," he says. "There are much more important things in life than where you're from. Humanity was my focus, and rescuing humanity became my skill.

"Some might remember my family, they ran a shipping fleet and brought tug boats to Belfast long before the Titanic."

After marrying a Lancastrian girl, sadly now passed away, he headed off to the north of England where he brought up his family - a son now living in Florida and a daughter in the RAF; he takes great pride in being a grandfather of five - and rapidly rose through the ranks of the service. But nothing had prepared him for what awaited in Armenia.

"I learnt a lot of the craft in Belfast during those early years from guys who deserve a lot more credit for the role they fulfilled. I'd always been interested in rapid response and I had my experience in Italy but the Soviet Union was something entirely different.

"It was astounding. There had been four colossal quakes within a minute of each other and you can still see the uplift of the land, about a metre and a half. That's an astonishing amount. The buildings had simply toppled into one another, then there'd been liquification of the earth - that's when the quake is so violent it releases the moisture in the soil and causes landslides.

"As it happened during daylight hours, I knew everyone would have been out and about and knew where people would most likely have been. That's important when locating potential survivors. But we arrived five days later, too late for too many.

"I remember walking down towards the town centre in two feet of snow. It was -25C. I paused for a moment in the early morning. There was a beautiful red blush of sunrise on the mountains around me. But below there was rubble. The snow was brown as storage tanks of molasses had burst across the town. It was a horrific scene. Way beyond anything Hollywood movies had created.

"A cardinal rule for rescue services is that you don't become a casualty yourself, but we were working in an unstable landscape. There were more than 200 after-quakes. The Soviet army were all around us and for the first few days we were stopped everywhere we went and asked to show our papers. Eventually they got to know us and we were free to go about our jobs, but it was a scary place to be.

"You really don't know until much later what the impact on the individual is. There's a real mental and emotional exhaustion that sets in. You can see it in a person. I saw it in many I worked with and that's why I made the decision to head home for Christmas Day. I knew some of the people returning with me would never be the same after the brutality they witnessed, but we were there to provide some human warmth and that's what mattered."

Paul was back in Spitak 18 months later on another humanitarian mission - this time to deliver and build three new homes which had been bought by the Armenian community of Manchester, and he made further trips in the 1990s, until his retirement in 1997.

On returning this month Paul was greeted by Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, who told him: "The United Kingdom provided great assistance by sending rescuers. These are actions which Armenia will never forget."

President Sarkissian also presented Paul with an Armenian memorial coin and added: "What he did for Armenia during those difficult days will never be forgotten."

Paul says: "I look around now and I see new buildings, low-rise residential places, none of them more than five floors. Lessons have been learned, but the town is a lot smaller than it was."

Though many of the buildings may be new, Paul was amazed to see the temporary homes that he had built 28 years ago were still standing.

"They were flat pack timber homes, completely glazed, sectionalised and kitted out inside," he explains. "They were advanced for the time and were built in 14 days back in 1989, but they were only supposed to be temporary.

"The community in Spitak presented them to three school teachers as they value education so highly, but today 500 families are still essentially homeless in the town. On the one hand you're happy that what you created is still standing, but on the other you'd like to see that the town and the community have moved on.

"The spectre of the earthquake is never far away. The town hasn't changed as much as I would have liked to have seen it do so. People are still struggling in the post-Soviet era 30 years down the line."

Despite the disappointment, Paul's visit gifted him an uplifting moment in the shape of resident Hamlet Dilbaryan (80). The former school worker, who lives in a metal ship container, and has done since the 1988 earthquake, came out to give Paul a warm greeting.

Clearly moved by the encounter, Paul says: "He lost his mother, wife, daughter and son in the earthquake. From his metal box he looks out through barred windows over the last remaining pile of rubble, the site of the old school where 14 children were killed that day. But he told me there are many other families worse off than him, families looking after the disabled with nowhere to live who deserve a house before him. After 30 years, there's a man who has the dignity to say that he doesn't want to ask for assistance; he is an extraordinary, courageous man.

"We came here as human beings, 10,000 miles at short notice to a people we could hardly identify with. They needed assistance from the world and the world sent the likes of me. That was the greatest privilege."

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