On Tuesday, January 24, 1956, a little boy was burned in a house fire. That boy was me. Here’s what happened that day.
My grandmother Sarah was working in the School of Commerce at the time. As my mother remembers it, Sarah would finish at a certain time in the day, which would allow mum to go out and get messages.
On this day Sarah was late and she needed to do washing but had run out of washing powder. The fire was lighting, said mum, “and I remember saying to you and Lorraine (my sister) ‘just sit there now while I run across the road to the shop and I’ll run straight back.”
Lorraine takes up the story: “A lot of adults smoked back then, and when they went to light their cigarettes they’d turn on the jet for the gas cooker, put a piece of paper in, light up the cigarette, like that; or put the paper to the fire and light it. And of course being the child that I was I just got the piece of paper and just lit it. Sure, I had no idea that the flames would do any harm. What did I know – I was only three.
“And I remember being fascinated lighting it. I thought it was a great thing showing it to you. I threw it back because it was getting hot and I went out into the kitchen, and the next thing I heard was you screaming. And as I came out of the kitchen you came towards me. All I could hear were your screams and I just remember the horror of the flames. And all I remember was that they were too high because I was so small.
“The flames were so high, and you were screaming and I was screaming, and we ran to the door trying to get out, but it was closed and we couldn’t open it. It was all over in seconds. I remember the awfulness, the awfulness of the whole thing, not knowing what to do. I being terrified, you being terrified and on fire, the flames leaping above your head and that look of terror in your eyes. The door opened then and people came in and everything blanked after that.”
Mum: “ When I went over to the shop there was another woman there and she was being served. When it was my turn I just said ‘a packet of washing powder and put that down on the book, I’ll pay you later.’ And I went straight out the door with the washing powder. When I got down the terrace to the house I heard all the screaming, went in the door… I mean you were on fire, the other one was screaming.
“There was a man up a ladder. I started screaming and he came running up. I vaguely remember, and he said something about a blanket. But I had been reading an article in a magazine prior to this happening and it said if somebody gets burned never wrap them in a blanket because the wool would stick to their skin. Always wrap them in a sheet. And all I shouted to him was ‘don’t put him in a blanket, put him in a sheet, put him in a sheet.’ I mean you were on fire, the other one was screaming,
“I must have been in a weakness because when I woke up I was across the road in Mrs Lane’s house on the couch. You were after going into the hospital (the South Infirmary) by ambulance. I couldn’t tell you what happened. The shock. Just I have no recollection. I was just unconscious and woke up and didn’t know where I was or what was happening. I must have passed out or something. I don’t know. I was across the road anyway. I don’t know if your father was here or in Dublin (dad was in Dublin that day), I can’t remember. Anyway he was there. He came. Everybody came.
“I went to the hospital – it must have been with your father – and I went into the ward and they brought me up to this bed. The next thing was I saw all the bandages, like a plum pudding and two little dark eyes, and I started screaming and roaring. I said, ‘that’s not my child, that’s not my child’. And I tore out of the ward screaming, and they must have came after me and they explained that it was me, and that my face had swelled because of the burns. I remember that part of it. And then, sure it went on.”
I lay in a coma for two weeks, and because I was not expected to live I was confirmed. Mum always said that I was a physically strong boy and that saved me.
The only people allowed to see me for the next two-plus years were my parents and Sarah. Lorraine was not allowed see me.