Belfast Telegraph

High risk Belfast tower block residents claim 24/7 fire marshals 'disappeared' at weekends

The apartments in Russell Court
The apartments in Russell Court
The apartments in Russell Court
Cecilia Van Helden
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

A woman who has been forced to leave her unsafe Belfast city centre apartment claims the housing association has failed to keep its promise of having 24/7 fire marshals on-site.

Cecilia Van Helden (49) is angry that she was given 28 days to leave her high-rise home in Russell Court last Tuesday.

The hotel receptionist is also upset over what she claims was a lack of fire marshals throughout the weekend.

Last week Radius Housing promised fire marshals would be stationed at the Lisburn Road site 24/7 until residents had been vacated from the building.

And Radius Housing was adamant last night that fire marshals had been present at all times, and firmly rejected any claims to the contrary.

"The safety of our residents is our number one priority," it insisted.

Ms Van Helden claimed: "There were two marshals stationed at the entrance all last week, then as soon as the weekend came they disappeared.

"I went looking for them (the marshals) at one point and couldn't find them anywhere."

The evacuation came after a fire survey raised "serious concerns" over Block B's capacity to meet modern safety standards.

Belfast actor Paddy Scully (77), who has lived in Russell Court for 32 years, also claimed the marshals, who are employed directly by Radius Housing, disappeared over the weekend.

"They were here all week and then they were gone," he said.

Ms Van Helden, who moved to Northern Ireland from the Netherlands five years ago, described how a group of men attempted to light "a mini-bonfire" in the building's car park on Saturday.

"You would think if the marshals were there they would have appeared at that point," she said.

"But they didn't appear again until today (Monday)."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from a nearby city centre park, Ms Van Helden claimed Radius Housing had made other "impossible" guarantees to residents.

The organisation, which has banned the media from accessing the apartment block, prevented Ms Van Helden from being interviewed in her home, and this reporter was ordered off the grounds.

"There are 60 (Russell Court)residents who all want a city centre apartment in south Belfast and they are all being told they will get it - that just doesn't seem possible," she said.

"There is a continuous contradiction in everything they tell us."

The tenant, who has been officially rendered homeless, has declined to be rehomed by Radius Housing.

She initially accepted an offer of a "high in demand" apartment in Coopers Court,0 only to find out later about its history.

"I asked them to Google it when they made the offer but they said it wasn't possible," she claimed.

"They said I had to sign the acceptance letter quickly, so I did."

As soon as Ms Van Helden returned to the apartment where she lives with her son Declan (20), she did a Google search of her new address and was "horrified" by the results.

"All these news articles came up about a woman who was the same age as I am now," she said.

"It said she died in suspicious circumstances and I have been unable to find out anymore about it.

"I still don't how that woman lost her life."

The "exhausted" tenant expressed frustration over the situation she now found herself in.

"I was discouraged from proceeding with a transfer request back in April," she said.

"I outlined serious concerns about the quality and safety of the building before."

Ms Van Helden also claimed fire alarms failed to sound when her fuse box caught fire on at least two previous occasions.

She has now accepted a Housing Executive offer of temporary accommodation.

It comes after an accidental leak by an NIO official revealed officials believe there will be "huge disruption" for Russell Court residents.

The briefing notes for Secretary of State Karen Bradley also referred to the fire safety marshals who will be "on alert around the clock" as residents prepare to move out.

The Housing Executive confirmed all residents have now been assessed and are beginning to receive offers of permanent accommodation.

Radius Housing said that it remained committed to supporting all residents during what is a "difficult time".

Belfast Telegraph


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