It was late afternoon on the Bank Holiday Monday, and Brendan McAteer was lazing in his front garden.
The dad-of-four had spent a great day with family at Benone beach and was enjoying the late afternoon sunshine at home.
Just as he’d shut his eyes, suddenly he heard a squeal - ‘Brendan come quick!’
With no idea what the emergency was, the Drumsurn man sprung from his chair and sprinted up the path and into Maretta Moran’s house, his neighbour three doors up. Brendan was hit with thick smoke in the hall, and flames several feet tall in the kitchen.
Maretta stood frozen in the corner, crying.
Brendan acted quickly, throwing a laundry basket full of clothes that was alight out the back door while flames climbed the wall. Maretta’s son Daniel helped too, but Brendan managed to get him and Maretta outside where his family and their neighbours watched in horror.
Brendan’s wife Winnie and children were shouting ‘daddy, get out’, but Brendan knew he couldn’t leave.
“If I can get the fire under control until the fire brigade arrives then it won’t spread to the other houses,’ he thought.
Brendan spied a bucket of water outside, managed to get to it and quash the flames somewhat, but he knew it wasn’t enough.
Brendan knew Maretta’s outside water tap was broken, but remembered his daughter, living at the end of the row of terraced houses, had a garden hose.
Brendan rushed outside, jumped over three fences several feet high like hurdles, and grabbed the hose.
Crawling underneath the smoke in the hallway, Brendan doused the flames down.
‘I’m okay!’ Brendan shouted out to his family.
Once the Fire Service arrived, Brendan was reunited with his family, his teeth and lips black from the smoke, but he was okay. Brendan, a member of the local community association, didn’t dare venture upstairs in Maretta’s house during the incident and, when the fire officers opened the upstairs windows and smoke billowed out, he knew he’d made the right decision.
Maretta was distraught, but equally as overwhelmed with relief when Brendan emerged unscathed.
“I wanted Brendan out of the house. It’s only a house - that can be replaced - but a life can’t,” said Maretta yesterday.
Brendan has been hailed a local hero, but he laughs it off. He modestly says he just did what anyone would have.
“If Maretta had left it another minute we would have been beat, and, in a way, it’s lucky it didn’t happen at night,” said Brendan. “I breathed in as little smoke as possible. Being in the community association and having taken safety and first aid courses, I knew what to do and what not to do. I’d do it all again if I had to!”
Fire Crews from Dungiven and Limavady attended the fire, and a spokesperson from the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service explained: “The cause of the fire was accidental and is thought to have been caused by clothes from a tumble dryer igniting.”
Maretta says she will never be able to thank Brendan enough. She says the McAteers have always been good neighbours, but his bravery on Monday was exceptional.
“He’s a hero, and if he hadn’t of been there, I dread to think what would have happened,” says Maretta, breaking down.
Maretta is still badly shaken by what happened, especially when she dwells on what could have happened, but she has been flooded with messages of support and offers to help her and her sons get back on their feet. Her house isn’t liveable currently, but Maretta hopes to move back in soon. She says the people of Drumsurn have been fantastic, offering clothes and household goods such as bedlinen.
In the midst of the upset, yesterday Brendan and Maretta were able to share a lighter moment. Brendan did have to go to hospital, but not for the effects of smoke inhalation. He admits jumping over the fences at speed, which he barely remembers, aggravated an already pulled muscle in his leg!
Brendan’s bravery is the talk of Drumsurn, and no one is quicker to praise him than local Sinn Fein councillor, Brenda Chivers.
“Everyone is talking about how brave Brendan was,” said the Drumsurn postmistress. “The fire could have spread to the adjoining homes, but Brendan acted so quickly. He really is a hero for what he did!”
nWatch Brendan and Maretta speak about the fire drama online at www.derryjournal.com