Thursday, May 30, 2024


A SPECIAL, but belated, gettogether took place in Newcastle on Monday evening to mark a local firefighter’s retirement – and this time the star of the show had no excuses to not turn up! Exactly a week after John Holmes’ colleagues were supposed to hold a special farewell, in recognition of the end of his long and distinguished career with the NI Fire and Rescue Service, he and his crewmates finally marked his 42 years with the emergency service. Just a few hours before the farewell celebration had been due to start on Monday, 31 July, the pagers sounded, with Crew Commander Holmes insisting he attend a call to rescue over two dozen calves trapped in a slurry tank in County Armagh. With the retirement party put on hold, John and fellow crew members from Newcastle, who are specially trained in large animal rescues, rushed to a Newtownhamilton farm.

Working alongside colleagues from Crossmaglen, Newry and Belfast, the specialist Newcastle rescue team managed to save all the calves, who were trapped in a slurry tank filled with deadly fumes. Kitted up with breathing equipment, John was amongst the personnel to enter the tank, bringing the final 10 calves to safety. As part of this mission, personnel used specialist slings and other equipment to rescue the livestock. But saving the calves was not the final task for Commander Holmes.

With this farm incident wrapped up shortly before 8.45pm, and the Newcastle team released from the scene, it wasn’t too long before he was again getting kitted up for what was to be his final call-out with Newcastle Fire Station. “We got another call at 11.30pm that night, when a faulty smoke alarm went off at an address in Newcastle. I still had to turn out just in case – and I left my shift at half past midnight,” he explained.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) said Commander Holmes’ rescue mission in County Armagh was “testament to his 42 years of dedicated service”. “John took charge of the animal rescue team, playing a central hands-on role in the safe and successful rescue of every one of the 28 calves,” a NIFRS representative said on social media. John said many of the colleagues he has worked alongside over the years at the town’s station are akin to family.

Hailing the camaraderie forged over four decades as a firefighter, John recalled being honoured for saving a man’s life, in tandem with his brother, following a chip pan fire. “In 1988, I received a Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation – both myself and my brother Derek saved a man’s life without having breathing apparatus,” he said. “The man was lying over a coffee table after a chip pan fire, he had gone to sleep. “He is still alive today.” Looking back on his career serving his community, John – who was awarded a long service medal in 1990 – added he had a real love for the job and was driven by the fact he and his crewmates help people in the local community. “You give up a lot to do the job, it is an inner pride,” he said. In terms of last week’s animal rescue, John said he “didn’t hesitate” to attend. “It was second nature, it was no bother at all. “I love animals and I wanted to help them. I wouldn’t want to see an animal suffer.” He explained that the Newcastle team has helped to rescue hundreds of animals over the years. “I went down into the slurry tank with two others to get the final 10 calves. “We were wearing the right overalls and breathing apparatus – the fumes would have killed you otherwise,” continued John, adding that many of his colleagues “were shocked” to see him at the farm rescue.

Now he has retired from the service, John has said he is looking forward to this new chapter in his life, spending more time with his wife and family.

However, he won’t be an entirely absent figure from the station on Valentia Place and has promised to call in from time to time. Thanking everyone who attended this week’s farewell presentation, including senior NIFRS officers, John admitted “it will take some time to get used to this new way of life”. “It has been a big commitment, but I have loved it, and have taken pride in being able to help serve my community. Granted, it’s been hard work, but I wouldn’t have changed it,” he added.

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