RETRO: Firemen took full force of the blast

Dot Smith, aged 86, of Woodseats, with a photograph of her late husband, firefighter Robert 'Bob' Smith.
Dot Smith, aged 86, of Woodseats, with a photograph of her late husband, firefighter Robert 'Bob' Smith.

Former firefighter Pete Childe still bears the scars today.

He is partially sighted because the extreme heat melted his lower eyelids and corneas. The top of his right ear was blown clean off. His legs are still marked with burns.

The funeral of Bob

The funeral of Bob

“Immediately after,” recalls the 71-year-old, “there were no gaps between my fingers. They’d fused together.”

But Pete, who spent five weeks in intensive care, was one of the lucky ones. He lived. Two of his colleagues did not.

This week marks the 40th anniversary since the last incident in which on-duty Sheffield firefighters lost their lives.

Heroes Robert Smith, 47, and Paul Parkin, 27, died after at explosion at British Steel’s Tinsley Park Works in Shepcote Lane. The pair - along with Pete and fellow firefighters Bob Codman and Brian Ellis - were trying to cool an over-heating furnace when it blew.

Sheffield firefighters including, far right, Paul Parkin

Sheffield firefighters including, far right, Paul Parkin

Both men passed away at the Northern General Hospital.

“There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it,” says Pete, of Heath Road, Deepcar. “We were spraying the furnace to cool it down when there was a rumble.

“Someone shouted ‘run’ and we did but it was too late. All of us were caught in it. I remember us all in an ambulance after. We were all still conscious at that point but there was just silence. It was bad.”

The explosion - on Monday, February 25, 1974 - happened during what should have been a routine call for the Darnall White Watch crew.

An initial fire, which was caused when bricks came loose from a furnace wall, had already been contained. But when the five men attempted to cool the furnace, as procedure dictated, the blast occurred.

“Fire teams and workmen were showered by molten metal,” reported The Star that night. “Workmen ran for cover as the firemen took the full force of the blast.”

Eleven crew were injured, along with two British Steel employees. People more than half a mile away heard the blast. One worker said it sounded “just like a bomb.”

“We were supposed to be going to a dance at Woodseats Club that night,” remembers widow Dorothy Smith.

“Then I got a knock on the door, and that was that.

“I went to the hospital and I remember Bob lying there, and he kept saying to me: ‘I’m so sorry, love. I’m so sorry we can’t go to the dance’.”

He passed away three days later.

“The nurse had warned me,” says Dorothy, 86, who still lives in the same home in Cartmell Road, Woodseats. “He was such a kind, gentle man. He would have risked his life for anyone and, in the end, he did.”

His only child, son Christopher, followed in his father’s footsteps. Now 48, he too is a firefighter, based in Rotherham.

“The job has changed beyond recognition now,” he says. “Back then the risks for firefighters were huge. Guys would regularly ‘eat smoke’ – enter a building without breathing apparatus – if they thought someone was in there and needed rescuing.”

Firefighter Parkin, of Bramley Drive, Handsworth, clung to life a little longer but, 13 days after the explosion, he lost his fight on March 10.

In the intervening days he too had drifted in and out of consciousness. “We had two children aged five and three, and I was pregnant with our third,” says Barbara Ashton, his widow, now 67.

“I kept talking to him about the baby, hoping it would give him something to fight for but it was very hard. He was heavily medicated because of his injuries. He was a wonderful person. Do I think they were heroes? Yes, I do but when you’re in the middle of all that it is difficult to feel anything but grief.”

Hundreds of mourners attended both men’s funerals. Today, two rooms at the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Sheffield headquarters in Eyre Street are named in their honour.