A fire chief involved in two of the most heartbreaking emergency call-outs in north Antrim has retired after more than 30 years in the service.
Charlie McAuley, a former acting district commander, was honoured at a special dinner in Ballymoney Fire Station last Thursday in recognition of his career.
Charlie, 56, retired last month and colleagues presented him with his retirement certificate and the gift of a weekend break in Enniskillen.
Members across the service also presented Charlie with a statue of a firefighter at another celebratory dinner.
Although originally from Armoy, Charlie and his family moved to Belfast when he was nine. He is one of 13 children and the youngest son of John and Cassie McAuley,
Charlie joined the fire service in 1978, aged 22, and by 1987 had served in all six fire stations across Belfast.
After just nine years, he rose to the rank of station officer.
In 1995 Charlie and his wife Helene returned “home” to Ballymoney.
Charlie, a father and grandfather, landed a post of district officer attached to Ballymoney Fire Station.
In 2001, he was transferred to the Coleraine District Headquarters after the fire service was reorganised and became the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service.
Reflecting on his career, Charlie said he thoroughly enjoyed his time in the fire service.
He said: “If someone gave me the opportunity and said we’ll wind the clock back and asked me would you do it again, I would absolutely jump at the chance.
“I’ve had a brilliant 33-and-a-half years’ service. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.
“That said I’ve had very difficult times and you don’t come through a service, where you are part of the emergency services, and not meet tragedy and disaster.
“I’ve had my fair share of that.”
A bulk of that tragedy would have been tackling blazes and emergencies during the Troubles in Belfast.
However when he moved back to north Antrim it is two harrowing incidents that haunt the memory.
In 1995 Charlie was in charge of a rescue operation after a man apparently became trapped in a well at Moyan Road, Kilraughts.
Plumber Derek Cushnahan had been trying to tap into water after the farmers’ well had dried out.
Tragically he became overcome with poisonous gas and sadly so did firefighter Robin Neill and paramedic Alistair Barr during the rescue bid.
Charlie bravely went into the well to retrieve the men but, heartbreakingly, all three lost their lives.
Charlie said: “It was a very difficult time for me personally and professionally.”
In another fatal incident in 1998 Charlie had to carry the bodies of the three Quinn children after their Carnanny home was petrol-bombed during a sectarian attack.
Charlie said: “Dealing with fires and fatalities in fires is always very difficult but dealing with children who have succumbed to a fire is really difficult and latter to learn that it had been deliberate just compounded it for us as firefighters.”
But while there were many downsides, Charlie also the saw the huge benefits of his work when tackling a large fire which broke out at the Diamond area in Ballycastle and gorse fires last spring.
Charlie added: “My colleagues and I have dealt with many other difficult and dangerous events over the years and I wish to pay tribute to those who have served and are still serving the public of Northern Ireland.
“In particular I would like to acknowledge the role of the late sub officer Dia Getty of Ballymoney who taught me more about rural firefighting and the work of the retained firefighter than I would have ever learnt from any book.
“Since March 2011 until my retirement last month I have held the post of acting district commander for the Coleraine District with management responsibility for Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Coleraine, Portrush, Portstewart and Rathlin fire stations.
“This has been the most challenging but most rewarding time in my career and I would like to thank all those who have contributed in anyway to help me over that time and throughout my career.”