Belfast Telegraph

Fireman almost burned alive on Troubles' first night dies at 86

Tributes paid to hero who braved riots to quench blazes

Richard Sefton MBE died days before the publication of a book about the fire service during the Troubles
Richard Sefton MBE died days before the publication of a book about the fire service during the Troubles
Horrific: Richard Sefton in hospital after the petrol bomb attack
Firemen tackle a blaze during the Troubles
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A former Belfast firefighter who suffered horrific injuries in a petrol bomb attack on his unmarked car on the first night of the Troubles and who heard rioters shout "let the b*****d burn" has died aged 86.

Former colleagues paid tribute to Richard 'Dickie' Sefton, who was awarded an MBE for his courage and who passed away days before the publication of a book which features a powerful interview with him and other former firefighters about their work during the worst of the violence.

Two months ago, Mr Sefton featured in BBC Northern Ireland documentary Firefighters on the Frontline.

Hugh Kennedy, another fire officer who talked to the documentary makers, died earlier this year aged 78.

Mr Sefton, who spoke with the aid of an electronic voice machine after being diagnosed with throat cancer, recalled how he unwittingly drove straight into a riot in west Belfast in August 1969.

He said he did not know the police and the fire brigade had been withdrawn and was caught up in disturbances at the top of the Falls Road as he drove a fire service car that was not marked but did have blue lights flashing.

"They (the rioters) took me for a policeman," he explained. "They smashed the windscreen and flung in two petrol bombs. The car went out of control and crashed, but I tried to roll myself out. If I'd been wearing a seatbelt, I wouldn't have got out."

A colleague who was also in the car ran down the Falls Road with his head and hands on fire.

Mr Sefton told John Wilson, the author of Blackstaff Press book Firefighters from the Troubles, that he heard one rioter shouting: "He's not a policeman, he's a fireman."

Another shouted: "Doesn't matter. Let the b*****d burn."

A local woman, whom he subsequently learnt was called Mrs O'Rawe, tried to beat out the flames engulfing his face with her bare hands.

He struggled to breathe and, after spending time lying on the ground, was eventually taken by colleagues to hospital, where he underwent a series of operations.

"My face is a skin graft. Every inch of it is a skin graft," said Mr Sefton, who feared that he would lose his job but was back on duty within six months.

Mr Wilson, a former firefighter himself, paid tribute to Mr Sefton.

"Everyone who knew him thought he was a wonderful man and a magnificent firefighter," he said.

"It was a tremendous privilege for me to get to know him as he talked to me for the book. His death is a sad loss to the service, whose thoughts are with his family at this time."

Mr Sefton did not know if his throat cancer and the removal of his voice box were connected to him swallowing burning fuel during the petrol bomb attack, but he was left unable to speak for a fortnight after the incident.

He also revealed that he was later told to go to a location in Belfast where he would be able to buy pictures of the attack on his car.

Mr Sefton said that after he returned to firefighting in 1970, things were "hectic" and he revealed that after he answered a call to a huge fire in a timber yard in west Belfast, a group of men searched him at a barricade and claimed he was an Army intelligence officer.

He said they could think what they wanted but insisted he was going to check on bungalows beside the timber yard.

The mob told Mr Sefton that the fire officers would be shot if they turned their hoses on the burning timber yard.

After the fire engines left the scene, Mr Sefton was held for a time by the crowd, who said they'd planted a bomb on one of the vehicles.

"I had no radio and I had to go down the Falls Road like a sprinter and stop the fire engines. We searched them, but there were no bombs on board," he said.

In the TV documentary Mr Sefton, a former diesel engineer, said he joined the Belfast fire brigade in 1955 at the age of 22 and got no training before he found himself on the road in a fire engine.

But he said that the service, now called the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, was like a family or a club where officers made friends for life.

Mr Sefton, who rose through the ranks of to become assistant divisional officer, retired in 1981.

In May 2010 he presented two paintings of Belfast's Central Fire Station in older times to hang in fire headquarters in Lisburn.

Mr Sefton's family said he had died peacefully at the Marie Curie Hospice, leaving behind wife Doreen, step-daughter Lynne and grandchildren Karl and Alan.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at Roselawn crematorium on Monday at 11am.

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