The other evening I headed to the gym for a fitness class, when suddenly I heard, then saw two fire engines that rushed slowly up the road and stopped 50 metres beyond the gym. I could see no smoke or other tell-tale signs of an emergency. The police had arrived too by the time I reached the gym. From a neighbour I learned there had been a chimney fire, but it seemed to have extinguished itself before the firefighters arrived.
I recalled the time I had dialled the emergency number when I saw flames belching out of a chimney. This was in the Creggan, then a well-known solidly Republican district of Derry. It was 1971, deep in the time of the Troubles.
It was a strange occurrence. The Derry Development Commission had engaged a consultancy to advise on the traffic system. The consultancy needed to determine the regular journeys people made, by bus or by car, and so engaged plenty of students to carry out the survey. I was given part of the Creggan. I had to deliver a lengthy questionnaire one day and collect it a few days later. Delivering wasn’t a problem; collecting was. Half the people refused to fill it in, or wanted me to take up all their other complaints with the Commission. (The Development Commission more or less ran the city in those days – there was no council.) With some people I had to sit down and fill in the form myself. And what a great form! All kinds of questions about their regular journeys, on which days of the week, which parts of the city they visited, and so on. Of course, just about everyone in the Creggan was unemployed, and their parents and grandparents had probably been unemployed. What kind of regular journeys would they do? Of course, there were alternative means to fill the time.
On the second day I was walking up a long road about to collect some of my questionnaires when I saw flames shooting 20-30 feet out of the chimney of a house some 50 yards ahead. Amazingly, I was just passing a phone box, and amazingly too, the phone was working. So I dialled 999, and asked for the fire service. I said the house was probably about number 20. ‘OK, we’re on our way.’
I went up to the house, which happened to be number 7, but by this time the fire was out. I rang the bell, and the lady said, ‘Oh, it’s ok now, it’s out, you’d better tell them not to come.’
So I went back to the phone box, called again, and said they didn’t need to come. ‘Ah, but they’re on their way, and we always respond to all the calls.’ As I stepped out of the phone box, the fire engine hurtled by, and rushed right up the hill to the other end of the road, where there was a smoky chimney. It was probably about number 100.
I ran after the fire engine, but by the time I had got there, the firefighters had already unwound their hose and were pouring water straight down the chimney. They hadn’t gone inside first.
I found the fire chief and said, ‘You’ve got the wrong house.’ It was number 146. ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter – any one will do!’ I was dumbfounded.
By this time all the neighbours were about, watching. I talked with some of them, who said I shouldn’t have called the fire service. A neighbour told me that a bedridden elderly lady lived all alone in the house. ‘She said it was the most exciting day of her life,’ the neighbour said. ‘She doesn’t get many visitors, and suddenly water came gushing down the chimney, flooding her room, and then huge masked firemen burst in. It made her day.’
I felt so bad, and guilty, and what’s more, anxious. Some of the young lads around were beginning to stare at me. Unsettling.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll go in and tidy up,’ the lady said. ‘You’d better get out of here.’
A heavily armoured unmarked landrover drew up. A window opened a slit. ‘Hey you, come over here.’ I did. ‘You called the fire service.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Name, address.’ But they knew that already. The police rarely went into the Creggan, but somehow they knew anyone who was an outsider there. It was more unsettling.
The police drove off at high speed. It could provoke a riot to stay. The young lads had been eyeing up the vehicle. One of them came over to me. ‘I’d f- off out of here if I’s you,’ and he tapped me on the shoulder. It was a friendly tap, almost comradeship, but clearly it wouldn’t remain so if I stayed. I could have caused a major incident, but luckily it was still early afternoon, the wrong time of day for an incident.