Fighting a five-day fire
Vile fumes, fleeing rats, explosions . . . The first firefighters on the scene of last weekend’s huge fire at the Oxigen recycling plant in west Dublin describe what they encountered
Up in smoke: fighting the blaze. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Up in smoke: fighting the blaze. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Up in smoke: fighting the blaze. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Up in smoke: fighting the blaze. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Up in smoke: fighting the blaze. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin
Glad to be home: firefighter Vincent Donegan. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
At 3.13am last Saturday, Vincent Donegan, of Tallaght Fire Station’s A-watch, was reading in a dormitory bed when the alarm sounded. “There wasn’t much detail given,” he says.
Jimmy Hetherington, the station officer, roots through his coat, finds the original printout and reads: “Ballymount Industrial Estate, Oxigen Environmental, fire on premises.”
A-watch had been on shift since 6pm. Donegan had already visited two houses in Lucan that had been filled with smoke by an electrical fault, and he was grabbing a little downtime – the station also has a gym, a kitchen and a relaxation room with a very old snooker table and a quite new television. (There is, of course, a well-used fireman’s pole, guarded these days by a plastic gate. “Health and safety,” says Hetherington.)
Do they get a shock when the alarm goes? “I’m 15 years in the fire brigade,” says Donegan. “You’d be used to it at this stage. But the adrenaline does kick in.”
Ninety seconds later two fire engines were on their way out of the station. “We just hope the [automatic] gates close behind us,” says Hetherington. “Once or twice we’ve come back to find them open.”
Each fire engine takes a team of four – or five, counting Hetherington – and each has a number. “Names,” says Donegan, “get confusing.” Number 1 is the driver, who doubles as pump operator. That night it was Ray McMonagle.
Hetherington, as station officer, sat beside him. In the back sat 2 and 4, the firefighting team: Donegan and Caine Tsujimura, a Canadian firefighter here on an exchange programme. Between them sat number 3, Damien Nolan, whose job it is to assist them.
“I know them all well,” says Hetherington, who’s from Swords, in north Co Dublin. He laughs and adds, “Though they’re mainly southsiders.”
He says there was no indication of how bad the fire would become from the initial call-out. “As we approached we couldn’t even see smoke,” says Donegan.
A handful of Oxigen employees were waiting at the building where the fire began, and they had a hose themselves. An automated evacuation message was echoing through the warehouse intercoms, but the only evidence of fire was an orange glow at the back of a warehouse.
Hetherington and Donegan went in to assess the situation. Then Donegan and Tsujimura went in, wearing breathing apparatuses, to fight the fire.
“It always feels a bit funny to be running into something everyone else is running away from,” says Donegan. “Even the rats were running away from it.”
There was a partition in the middle of the building, and a doorway. Hetherington told them to remain around this spot. They could see the glow – the “seat” of the fire – but they could also see little fires breaking out amid the compacted piles of rubbish stacked throughout.
“It was clear of smoke at that point,” says Donegan. “It didn’t look too bad. But because the material was so dry and flammable and tightly packed it took off very quickly.”
Donegan and Tsujimura began attacking the fire with their hose. They were accompanied by another two-man team from the second truck, Gary Mason and Barry Guilfoyle. The fire, they say, quickly jumped up a few stages. “The volume of water we were putting on to it didn’t seem to be doing very much,” says Donegan. “The rubbish on either side of us started to burn.”
They could see, in and around the orange fire, little sparks of blue flame, as gases from the rubbish combusted. “The fire is looking for as much oxygen as it can get, and you could feel it breathe, sucking the oxygen in from behind us . . . Then the smoke started coming over our heads. The level of the smoke thickened, and it started to get quite hot.”
Pretty soon they were on their knees. “It wasn’t burning us, but you could feel the heat coming through the layers of our clothes.”
It was now so hot that fires were starting around the warehouse. Tsujimura started to hose the smoky air, to try to stop it igniting. “We could see the smoke layer coming down from the roof,” says Donegan. “We could actually see it changing in colour. . . It was like the Northern Lights.”
At this point Hetherington ordered the men to retreat from the building. “We knew there was no one in there,” he says, “and I’m not going to risk lives over some rubbish.”
Donegan didn’t argue. “When you’re on your knees on the ground in a large building, and you can feel the heat burning though your shoulders, it’s time to get out of there.” He then says, with a little understatement, “It starts to get worrying.”
As they retreated the smoke started to ignite over their heads. At this point they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. “Our hose is our way back out,” says Hetherington, referring to the 30- or 40-metre distance to the door.
He says that his fear is largely controlled by training but that they also have good self-preservation instincts. “Most of us have families we want to go home to. So you’re in this smoky space thinking of your children and your wife. You want to go home to them in the morning. That keeps us alert and on edge. If we were complacent accidents would happen.”
Once they were outside the warehouse it was clear that this wasn’t an ordinary fire. “It changed from offensive firefighting to defensive firefighting,” says McMonagle.
“Damage limitation,” says Donegan.
The fire was spreading to bales of rubbish lined up around the building. “There were, I think, 12 or 13 fire appliances,” says Donegan. These included an ambulance and an incident command centre from Townsend Street.
They were assigned sectors to help control the spread of the fire. “It was so hot and so intense,” says Donegan. “The fire kept lighting up in different places. There were explosions. There were oxyacetylene tanks in the workshops. They could have exploded at any stage and landed anywhere.”
There were also, he says, rats running around, and water all over the ground, from the thousands of litres of water being hosed over the fire. “You’re walking over a surface that’s wet and slippy. It could be anything up to your knees in places . . . And then there are the rats and the danger of disease.”
“And the smell was vile,” says Hetherington, referring to the strange synthetic odour that came from the burning waste. “People could smell it all the way over by the airport.”
“I was sitting at home yesterday, having a cup of coffee, and I got this wave of it again,” says Donegan. “No matter how many showers you have, you still have this smell in the back of your throat. Even though it’s gone off our clothes it’s like it’s eaten into your skin.”
The fire continued to spread. Donegan and the others show me some video footage captured by a camera mounted on Tsujimura’s helmet, one of several given to them by a documentary team. They don’t always have them on, but Tsujimura is eager to document his time in Ireland. In the footage you can see the terrifying spread of the fire.
It takes two men to work the hose, and their protective clothing and equipment are very heavy. “Between yourself sweating and getting wet it gets heavier as the hours go on,” says Donegan. “You feel it in your shoulders and feel it in your back.”
“And you’ve no real break for hours. No cup of tea. No time for the toilet,” says Nolan. The next day there was a Civil Defence bus with tea and sandwiches. But that hadn’t arrived for A-watch’s shift.
They kept each other’s spirits up, though, he says. They talked about football, and what they were planning for tea, and found stoical humour in the situation.
Eventually Oxigen staff managed to move some of the material that hadn’t caught fire, making a fire
break, and that’s when the team eventually stopped the fire spreading. “The guy driving the grabber did amazing work,” says Hetherington. “He said the glass in his cab cracked with the heat.”
“We were putting water on him,” says Donegan. “That was around 6.15 in the morning. I remember Caine checking his watch.”
A-watch kept working until they were relieved by another team, at 7.30am. That’s four hours of nonstop firefighting.
Working in the dark, they say, it was hard to see the extent of the fire. “Someone showed me a photo taken from the road,” says Donegan. “There’s this massive inferno, and there’s these two little specks. That was me and Caine.”
“I’ve never seen a fire that big,” says McMonagle.
On the way home they found an open butcher’s shop and got the makings of a fry. Donegan wasn’t even going to bed when he got home. It was the day of his son’s birthday party. Three days later A-watch was back out at Ballymount, fighting the end of what turned out to be a five-day conflagration. But at that moment they were done.
“We came back here and sat upstairs and there was a buzz in the place,” says Hetherington. “The next watch came in for their shift. ‘Where are we going?’ [they asked]. You could see this plume of smoke up the road.” He laughs. “I just pointed at it: ‘You’re going down there. We’re going home.’ ”