Poignant memorial service to Peterborough firefighter killed in Fengate explosion 30 years ago
Three decades after a Peterborough firefighter paid the ultimate price in the line of duty, friends, family and colleagues came together to remember the man - and unveil a lasting memorial to him.
John Humphries, a proud member of Blue Watch at Stanground Fire Station, was one of the first firefighters on scene when a lorry carrying fireworks exploded in Fengate, Peterborough on the morning of March 22 1989. He was tackling the fire in the van when the explosion happened, and he was struck by shrapnel at 9.45am. More than 100 other people were injured, while other firefighters were treated for post-incident traumatic stress as a result. Today (Friday, March 22) dozens of people - some who knew John, some who were at the scene when the van exploded, and some firefighters who serve residents in Peterborough today - gathered in Bishop’s Gardens in the city for an emotional service, and to see a new red plaque unveiled for John. The event started with a parade from The Town Hall, led by standard bearers from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service and The Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU). They were joined at the front of the parade by a piper, members of John’s family and Mayor of Peterborough cllr Chris Ash. They march past fire engines parked outside the Town Hall and over to the park. Firefighter Nicola Barlow, who organised the event, opened the service and introduced speakers, including Mick Wrack, general secretary of the FBU who spoke about the sacrifices made by fire crews every day - and the importance of learning lessons when there were tragedies. Wreathes were laid by the Mayor, the FBU and Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, before the plaque was revealed. Speaking after the service, Ray McDonnell, who worked with John, said: “We got the first call at 9.36am. I was in my office when I heard a bang. I thought someone had slammed the door. “When I got to the scene, I saw the ambulance officer. I asked what had happened and he said ‘you don’t know, do you?’ John was a big part of the watch. He was a family man. It was a small watch, but we were a close knit group. “If he is looking down from above, I’m sure he would be proud today.” Mr McDonnell said firefighters and their families had been hugely affected by what had happened 30 years ago. He said: “The aftermath was horrible. Mums, wives and girlfriends didn’t want their men to go to work because it could have happened again. “It could still happen again. It might not be in this county, but it will happen again.”
Rodney Brailsford has more to thank John Humphries for than most. Mr Brailsford was managing director PPS Print, based a few yards away from where the fire in the van started. He said: “I was in my office when I heard popping sounds. I assumed it was another incident at the firework factory - but I decided to go and investigate. “I found a white Mercedes van with its rear doors open. Inside there were very large - bigger than tennis balls - bright blue balls popping. “There were the detonators exploding out of the back of the van - but the van was also carrying gelignite (an explosive substance.) “I was within 30 yards of the van, when firefighters, including John told me to get out of the rea. If it wasn’t for him I might not be here. “It was not John’s lucky day, but it was mine. “The service today was beautiful. It was great to see so many people here to remember John.” Nicola Barlow said lessons had been learnt as a result of the tragedy in Fengate. She said: “It is important to remind people of what we do. When most people run away from danger, we run towards it. “As a direct result of the incident, changes were made to improve safety. Notices were put on vans and lorries if there were explosives inside. “The old yellow trousers fire fighters wore were gotten rid of, and visors were put on helmets. Our personal protective equipment was improved so much.” Along with the plaque, local FBU members have also negotiated the installation of a memorial bell at John’s station, Stanground, which will be rung every year on the anniversary of John’s death. Cameron Matthews, FBU Eastern Region Chair, said: “For 30 years John’s death has remained a deeply traumatic and heart-breaking event, etched in the souls of many firefighters in the Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service. “Over the past 3 decades little had been done in recognition of the horrifying sacrifice made by John and his family. Our members were determined that this could no longer be allowed to continue. “In 2018, Cambridgeshire FBU members took the initiative and applied to the Red Plaque scheme and were one of the first to secure a community memorial for our brother John Humphries. “Poignantly the first fire crew to ring this memorial bell on this 30 year anniversary will be Blue Watch.” The FBU’s Red Plaque scheme was created as part of the union’s centenary celebrations in 2018, and is funded by the Firefighters 100 Lottery.