Long-serving ambulance man Sammy Nicholl happy to switch off blue light in happier times

editorial image

Nearly 37 years ago Sammy Nicholl was among the first responders to the Droppin’ Well bombing in Ballykelly in which 17 people were killed by the INLA.

Fast forward three decades and Sammy helped ensure some of the most joyous events of our recent history, the Fleadh Cheoil and BBC’s ‘One Big Weekend’, passed off safely in 2013.

Over 39 years’ service the former Altnagelvin ambulance service station officer witnessed a period of extraordinary transformation for both the city and the ‘blue light’ service itself.

After folding up the uniform for the last time a few weeks ago the Coshquin father-of-two who now lives with his wife in their home of many years in Prehen, told the ‘Journal’ he hasn’t had any difficulties adjusting to a well-earned retirement.

“I’d been told to expect it to be a bit strange. But so far I’ve been getting on alright. The thing you would miss most would be meeting everyone first thing. With the weather having been quite good, I’ve been busy doing jobs around the house.”

Sammy originally joined the service in August 1980 when its was still a function of the old Western Health and Social Services Board. Incredibly, after induction, driving instruction and a six week blitzkrieg on the basics it was straight onto operational duties and at a time when the Troubles were at their height.

“The first major emergency I attended was the Droppin’ Well bombing in December 1982 when 17 people were killed and 30 injured. I attended the car bomb in Cromore Gardens when two people were killed transporting a bomb. Some of the injuries were absolutely horrific.

“I was on duty for the ‘Good Samaritan’ bomb and there was the incident at Magee when two RUC officers were blown up recovering a body. The ambulance crew had been in the car just moments before it exploded.”

On top of the normal medical emergencies such as heart attacks, strokes and car crashes Sammy was dealing with shootings, bombings, kneecappings, rubber bullet injuries and tar-and-featherings on a daily basis.

“After the Droppin’ Well, you just went back on shift. That was the way it worked. Now things have changed and you would be stood down if you attended a major emergency like that. You would have the opportunity to have counselling. Things have become a lot better that way.”

Having lived through the worst of times Sammy also enjoyed the best of them. His involvement as a key emergency advisor during the City of Culture year was a highlight.

“I got to meet people you wouldn’t normally like [pop stars] Bruno Mars and Pixie Lott when I was working at ‘One Big Weekend.’ Some of the people you meet are nicer than others,” he quips, leaving it at that.

Sammy, who in 2016 was recognised with a ‘Derry Journal’ People of the Year award is pleased to be standing down when Derry is enjoying such a sustained period of peace.

He’ll still busy, though.

“The wife has a list for me!” he jokes.