A 72-year-old Derry woman has called for action after arsonist struck at a vacant property next door in the latest in a series of anti-social episodes.
Monica Harkin from Fergleen Park in Galliagh had to lead her daughter Joanne (44), who has special needs, to safety through thick smoke which had spread to the inside of her home on Sunday morning.
The fire set off alarms in the Harkin family’s home and resulted in a lift designed to transport her daughter between floors, being unusable.
Housing Executive tenant Mrs. Harkin said the privately owned house next door has been lying empty for almost a year and was previously targeted by thieves and used as a drinking den “and God knows what else.” She also referred to the house as “Fergleen’s land-fill site” because of the amount of rubbish being dumped in it by unknown parties.
She said: “The first I knew about the fire was when I was lying in bed on Sunday morning at about 8.45 and a neighbour across the street phoned over and said ‘Monica the flames are going over your wall from next door.’
“Joanne called to me, she was listening, and instead of me saying to her ‘go on down’, I said ‘no, wait I’ll go down along with you’. The lift is in another room and somebody was looking after us because if she had’ve gone on, she would have been stuck between the two floors. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
“There was smoke everywhere. The alarms were going doolalley, all you could see was the haze. You could really smell it, but I thought before we came down that it was outside. I didn’t realise our house was full of smoke.”
It is understood that the arsonists had put some of the rubbish into the oil burner house, attached to the vacant house and set it alight. Mrs Harkin said: “On Sunday night I was still wakened at 4.30 a.m. All I could think of was what would we have done if the wain had got stuck in the lift.”
She added that the Housing Executive have been very responsive in the past and did take some measures after thieves tore out the kitchen and left wires exposed. However their hands are tied to an extent because the property next door is privately owned.
“I would like tenants in it. There are plenty of tenants out there could be doing with a house,” she maintained.
And despite her ordeal, Mrs Harkin said she has no intention of moving house.
“I love down here. I love the community in Galliagh, always have, and I have great neighbours in Fergleen. They’d need a digger to get me out.”
The Fire Brigade meanwhile have confirmed that the fire at the property in Fergleen is believed to have been started deliberately.
The confirmation came as Caroline Lynch, a neighbour of Mrs Harkin and chairperson of the Galliagh Community Development Group, pointed out that the houses in the street were timber-framed and that just a few doors down, three houses had burned to the ground in a huge fire several years ago.
Mrs Lynch said efforts to secure a lasting solution needed to be redoubled. She said: “Numerous times when the rubbish was building up in there, we were on to them several times warning ‘this is an accident waiting to happen’ and ‘this is going to be destroyed.’ They were saying there is nothing that can do because of red tape. At the end of the day this is now about Joanne and Monica’s’ safety.
“We have been at Derry City Council for the past 11 months regarding the safety of this house; the anti-social behaviour and people hanging around the house.
“Everybody looks out for everybody here on the street and since the other houses went up on fire, people do live on their wits’ ends. Everybody is on red alert. We want all the agencies to work together.”
A Council spokesperson said that it was dealing with the indiscriminate dumping.
A Housing Executive spokesperson said: “We understand this house is in private ownership and efforts are being made to locate the owner. The house is secured with shutters and we will continue to work with Derry City and Strabane Council to resolve issues which arise. Our Neighbourhood Warden will be in contact with our tenant to offer assistance and reassure her of our continued support.”
A spokesman for the N. Ireland Fire & Rescue Service meanwhile, said two fire appliances from Northland Fire Station “using a hosereel jet dealt with a quantity of rubbish alight outside the derelict premises.”
“NIFRS finished at the scene at 9.16 a.m. and the fire is being treated as deliberate,” he added.