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Fire chief Charlie Bell who witnessed worst atrocities of Northern Ireland Troubles laid to rest


Charlie Bell

Charlie Bell

Fire service personnel salute as the coffin of Charlie Bell is carried into Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown

Fire service personnel salute as the coffin of Charlie Bell is carried into Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown

Charlie Bell

A former fire chief who was on the scene of many of Northern Ireland's worst terrorist atrocities, including the Enniskillen bombing, was given a fitting tribute yesterday as two fire engines led his funeral cortege.

Charlie Bell (79) died in hospital on Monday after battling a series of cancers for a remarkable 23 years.

And it was revealed that the former Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Northern Ireland narrowly escaped death off-duty as well as on it.

In August 1988 he was driving in Lisburn right behind the car of an RUC detective, John Warnock, who died after an IRA booby-trap bomb exploded.

Mr Bell sustained facial injuries but eye-witnesses talked of how he scrambled bleeding from his car to direct traffic away from the danger at Sloan Street in Lisburn.

The policeman's death devastated Mr Bell who told friends and family that "I got off lightly".

Mr Bell's daughter Helen Stephenson said that her father, who was born in Dungiven, "lived and breathed for the Fire Service and dedicated himself to helping people from both sides of the community".

He became a retained fire officer in his home town in 1960 before going full-time in Londonderry and he was later promoted to oversee the service in the south of the province before moving to headquarters in Lisburn as Assistant Chief Fire Officer.

Mrs Stephenson said her father sometimes talked to his family about "the truly awful things" he had seen throughout his career. "They were terrible, terrible days for him," she said.

"His experiences at Enniskillen where 11 people were killed and at Narrow Water where 18 soldiers died and at countless other terrorist incidents throughout Northern Ireland left a legacy. But there was no such thing as counselling for members of the emergency services or the police in those days.

"They just had to get on with it.

"But his admiration for what his fire officers did throughout the troubles never dimmed.

She added: "And he also spoke about other dreadful calls he had attended that weren't connected to the Troubles, like house fires, road accidents and the sad, sad deaths of children."

Mr Bell was also tasked on occasions to talk to the media about major terrorist atrocities.

Mrs Stephenson said she and the rest of his family constantly worried about Mr Bell and she added: "It was always a joy for us to see his white Vauxhall Cavalier car coming into the driveway."

Mr Bell was awarded an MBE in recognition of his work in the Fire Service in 1978.

Having retired in 1990 after 30 years of service, Mr Bell had a farm smallholding and served on a number of organisations including the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme.

In 1997 he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and he underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

He survived, but some years later he developed prostate cancer and underwent radiotherapy. However, the disease spread to different parts of his body and one of his kidneys was removed along with other organs.

Mrs Stephenson said: "He fought his illness bravely, quietly and honourably. He was guided by his faith, love and hope... he also looked after my mother Olive through difficult times too and he wouldn't take any help at all until she had to move into a care home. They'd been married for nearly 58 years."

Yesterday fire officers carried Mr Bell's coffin from his home in Portadown. The cortege led by the fire engines was given a police escort to Seagoe Parish Church where he had been church warden and member of the select vestry.

Mr Bell was later buried at Seagoe Cemetery.

Belfast Telegraph