A GRANDMOTHER badly hurt in a huge explosion 31 years ago met her rescuer by chance – when he came to check out her home for fire safety.
Beryl Riley was lucky to survive and suffered serious back injuries when she was trapped in rubble after a blast ripped her office apart at the former Emsley and Collins fruit wholesalers in Deighton in January 1977.
She was rescued by firefighters from Huddersfield’s Red Watch – including Nick Carter who had only been in the job for a couple of years.
Now 51, Nick is a fire safety officer and quite by chance called at Beryl’s house at Armitage Road in Birkby, offering to do a free home safety risk assessment.
Beryl agreed and told him the last time she had met a fireman he was helping her down a ladder.
When she told Nick about the blast they realised Nick was one of the first rescuers to arrive at the scene.
Beryl, 64, said: “I remember the exact time of the explosion – it was 3.55pm. We finished at 4pm in those days so we would have been out of the building in another five minutes and safe.’’
The firm had a banana-ripening plant – a large building made from breeze blocks with no windows.
Water was sprayed on the floor and then ethylene gas let inside to recreate the sense of a tropical climate.
But there must have been a build-up of a pocket of the gas for when warehouse manager Harry Studd, then 49, went into the building it ignited and exploded. He was flung into the yard by the blast and was badly burned.
The first-floor office was destroyed by the explosion and Beryl believes her life was saved by an iron safe being blown into the back of her chair which jammed her under her desk. Chairs and other office furniture around her was hurled into the yard below.
But it also left a lasting legacy.
Beryl suffered serious damage to five vertebrae and one of her drawers was open which went into her side causing internal injuries and bleeding.
She now suffers from arthritis throughout her body which she believes was partly caused by her injuries.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the explosion she had no idea how badly hurt she was.
She said: “The noise of the explosion was like thunder and then wood and debris started to fly past me. I put my hands over my head and leaned forward in my chair across my desk.
“The next thing I remember was the sound of firefighters shouting in the yard below. I heard them warning that the floor was due to collapse. The roof had been blown off. There was grey dust everywhere and I could hardly breathe. It was like a thick fog.’’
Firefighters climbed up through the rubble and managed to free Beryl, who was a ledger clerk at the company. Four other women in the office were also rescued, but they escaped with shock, cuts and bruises.
At first Beryl thought she was OK and was helped through the rubble and had to clamber across a desk before she was helped down a ladder.
“I told everyone I was fine,’’ she said. “I just wanted to get home and knew my children needed collecting from school.’’
Police said she needed to go to Huddersfield Royal Infirmary for a check-up and once on a trolley there she could not move.
“In hindsight I think the adrenalin had kept me going until then,’’ she said. “Or it could be that the area around my spinal cord had swollen up. I was kept horizontal for many days and could not lift my head at all. The pain was unbelievable.’’
She went back to the same job three months later and, in the end, worked for Emsley and Collins for 18 years.
She has not worked since her early 50s due to her arthritis.
She now fosters unwanted greyhounds which she sees as important therapy. She takes them for walks.
Beryl has two daughters, Vicky and Nicky, and three grandsons, Jordan, 14, Kyle, 12, and Thomas, five.
She said she was amazed to meet Nick again.
“I’d wanted a home fire safety check ever since I saw an advert on the TV about fire safety featuring Julie Walters,’’ she said.
“It was great to see Nick again so many years later. He fitted a couple of new smoke detectors and his visit gave me peace of mind now and evoked a lot of old memories.’’
Nick said: “The explosion was the first rescue I’d attended and it was a great team effort by Red Watch to rescue those people.’’
Mr Studd survived his injuries and now lives in Bradford.
To organise a free home fire safety check phone 0800 5874536.