‘Her hands and feet were tied, she was only a few feet from the fire’... sisters tell how they rescued woman from blaze started by burglars
A man says he has been left "numb" after masked thugs ransacked his home and set fire to it after tying up his cleaner and leaving her inside.
Luckily the woman was rescued by neighbours - two sisters who told their dramatic story to the Belfast Telegraph.
Dad-of-three Matthew Davey (52) also spoke of his devastation as he surveyed the damage to his fire-damaged home in the village of Clough, Co Down.
The acrid stench of smoke lingered throughout the property, while Mr Davey's damaged possessions littered the floors.
A balaclava discarded by one of the intruders hung on the bannister in the hallway, and a mound of scorched debris sat outside the rural property.
Police said two masked men had entered the house shortly after 1pm on Monday and that the cleaner, who is in her 50s, was tied up before the intruders made off with an iPad and a Mac Book in a grey coloured Peugeot 206 car.
Money is also understood to have been taken.
During the raid a fire was started in an upstairs room.
Police and the Fire Service rushed to the scene and the blaze was extinguished.
The Peugeot car, which is understood to belong to the cleaner, was discovered burned out at The Old Mill on the Clarkill Road in Castlewellan shortly after midnight on Tuesday.
The PSNI said that the woman was "not injured but left shocked", while the house sustained "significant damage".
They added that the investigation is "at an early stage and all lines of enquiry are being followed".
It is understood that police are looking at a link between the burglary and another at commercial premises on Castlewellan Road in the village, which occurred sometime overnight on Monday.
A sum of cash was stolen from a till in that incident.
Maghera Inn owner Mr Davey, who was not at home at the time of the burglary, said he was thankful his cleaner had not been killed, as she had been tied up in a bedroom near to where the fire was started.
The woman, understood to be a mum-of-two who has a pacemaker fitted due to a heart condition, was rescued by neighbours Gemma (27) and Grainne Rice (25).
The sisters told how they were "acting on adrenaline" as they rescued her from the top floor of the house while the blaze raged just feet away.
Recalling the moment when they came upon the scene, Gemma said: "We were coming back in the car after walking the dogs and we saw the smoke.
"The door was sitting wide open and they had completely ransacked the place. I ran in and started calling as I thought Matthew would be there, but the lady answered saying she was upstairs.
"Her hands and feet were tied up, and she was only a few feet away from the bedroom which had been set on fire.
"Somehow she managed to get her hands free.
"I tried to get her feet free and picked her up and she hopped to the stairs. I ran about making sure no one else was in the house and Grainne ran into the kitchen.
"We were on the phone to the police at the same time.
"We managed to find some scissors to free the woman and we all ran out of the house.
"Not long after, the windows cracked in the room where the fire had been started, and smoke was pouring out. The floor of the room collapsed.
"The lady was just in shock, she sat on the road and her son came to the scene to comfort her."
Mr Davey said he originally thought a call to say his home was on fire was a "practical joke".
"When I got back to the house the cleaner was sitting at the end of the bridge on our road, very distressed and angry," he recalled. "She was totally terrified, overwhelmed.
"She told me that she had become aware of someone going around the outside of the house. She went to investigate, and when she opened the door they forced their way past her.
"They overpowered her and put her through a two-and-a-half hour ordeal.
"I believe they tied her up with some sort of wire and were abusive and menacing.
"I have a large plastic toy Santa from Christmas, and I believe they pulled its head off with golf clubs or a pair of scissors.
"I feel guilty that she had to go through that, as she was just doing her job.
"She was completely innocent. They must have thought the house would be empty and didn't expect to find her here."
Mr Davey said that a friend had been staying in the upstairs bedroom in which the blaze was started, and that all her possessions were destroyed.
He believes that the damage to the house could amount to around £120,000, and that he could be out of his home for up to six months.
"I don't know if they thought there could be money in the house because I own a business," he said.
"In 2009 my house was also burgled and no one was caught.
"The more I think about it, the more I think the burglaries could be linked.
"At the end of the day, it's just stuff, and it can be replaced.
"But a woman could have lost her life, which is shameful.
"I can't understand why they started the fire. I think the cleaner was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Mr Davey is unsure if he can ever face returning to his home.
"At the moment I feel numb, I'm probably in delayed shock," he said.
"I'm considering stepping up security at my home and business. At the moment I'm not really frightened to be back in the house.
"I feel pretty safe today, but in six months' time am I going to feel comfortable coming home here?
"I just don't know. I may move because of this."
Meanwhile, the heroic rescuers modestly insisted they were "just in the right place at the right time".
"We were just doing what anyone else would have done," Grainne said.
"Gemma and I were running on adrenaline. It is surreal for people to call us heroes.
"The people who did this are evil, they need help. If we hadn't been there to get her out this woman could have died."
The women have been left in shock by what they witnessed.
"We are afraid for our granda, who is 93 and lives in the area," Gemma said.
"I was lying in bed last night and got up to check all the locks in the house. There is a sense of fear as there have been so many violent burglaries in rural communities recently. This is a quiet area - a rural wee country road. We just can't believe this has happened here."
DUP MLA Jim Wells said the woman was "lucky to have escaped with her life".
The PSNI is appealing for anyone who witnessed suspicious vehicles or people in the School Road area on Monday, or who saw the Peugeot car being driven between Clough and Castlewellan, to contact Ardmore Police Station on 101, quoting reference 952 19/02/18.