From pit disasters to murder cases – ex-North East firefighter opens up about life on the front line

When 24-year-old Colin Kirkham joined Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service in 1987, he had no idea where his 14-year career would take him.

While he expected to run into burning buildings, Colin would never imagine he would help rescue men following the Wearmouth Colliery tragedy or become involved in the case of serial killer Steven Grieveson.

But that’s just what happened during Colin’s colourful career as he recalled some of his most memorable times ahead of the launch of his new book ‘For the Love of Fire’.

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Now living in the Isle of Man, Colin, 58, recalled the “awful” time he found one of Steven Grieveson’s murder victims in a garden.

Dubbed ‘the Sunderland Strangler’ evil Grieveson murdered four teenage boys in a series of brutal killings between 1990 and 1994 in Sunderland.

Colin explained: “Red Watch found the first body and the third I actually found when I clambered over the fence and found the lad in the garden.

“It was awful but I was more frustrated. There was a sense of frustration because we couldn’t do anything about it and it felt like it was never-ending.

“And it didn’t end there because years later I was called by Northumbria Police saying I may be called as a witness into the trial but didn’t in the end.”

Colin was also involved in the Wearmouth Colliery tragedy which happened on February 13, 1992, and saw Eric Evans and Gerard Sumby lose their lives in the last fatalities at the site before it closed the following year.

Due to his tall height, Colin was instructed to stay above ground and help with equipment.

Ex-fireman Colin Kirkham who has written a book about his experiences in the fire service called ''For the Love of Fire"
Ex-fireman Colin Kirkham who has written a book about his experiences in the fire service called ”For the Love of Fire”

He explained: “The fire brigade was sent underground which was unusual as miner rescue would get sent but we had difficulty getting in touch with them.

“There were a couple of fatalities down there and some were left with life-long disabilities.

“Everybody knew someone who worked down the pit, I had close friends who worked there and it was less than a mile from the station.”

Born in Jarrow, Colin initially played for Sunderland Basketball Club at Crowtree Leisure Centre for 15 years before the team was bought out by Sir John Hall and moved to Newcastle.

During that time they won two national playoff championships and the team was even honoured by being given the Freedom of the City of Sunderland.

But while he played semi-professionally and did coaching on the side he decided he would need a “proper” career so joined Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.

Colin said: “From being young I was always fascinated by fire, I found the flames fascinating to watch so it was something I always wanted to do.

“I should have joined a lot sooner but I spent a lot of time playing basketball.

“I decided I needed a proper career as basketball was never going to be a long-term career for me and that’s when an opportunity came up at Tyne and Wear Fire Service.”

Colin did his training at South Shields fire station before he was sent to his first post at Gateshead.

He said: “My first day was on New Year’s Eve so we had a few house fires and we had flooding at a hotel so we were busy the whole night.”

He was then moved to Fulwell Station in Sunderland where lots of his “major jobs” occurred.

Colin said: “The ones that stay with me are the ones where there have been fatalities I can remember every fatal I went to.

“There was a gas explosion on New Year’s Eve in Downhill but first we were called to a false alarm which was a hoax call bang on midnight.

“People were wishing us Happy New Year and then next thing we heard was a big thud and we were sent to a block of flats in Downhill.

“The whole block of flats just crumbled. A burglar had stolen a gas metre and the gas built up before an ignition source sparked it and the whole place blew up.

“There were a few people injured but one lady was trapped on what was left of the top floor and unfortunately she died.

Ex-fireman Colin Kirkham who has written a book about his experiences in the fire service called ''For the Love of Fire"
Ex-fireman Colin Kirkham who has written a book about his experiences in the fire service called ”For the Love of Fire”

“You relive incidents over and over again but we had a lot of dark humour within the fire service which was like a coping mechanism.

“It might not seem like the right time but it was just a way to cope with everything.

“We never knew what was coming next so we had to be prepared for that. But it’s a career I have thoroughly enjoyed.”

Colin and his wife Lorna soon left the North East to raise his family in the Isle of Man where he briefly became a police officer before once again returning to the fire service.

There he raised his three children Kai, 25, Gemma, 22, Zoe, 20.

And after he retired, thoughts turned to his time in Sunderland and his rollercoaster career- and that’s when an idea formed.

He said: “My son said he wanted to join the fire service, I said: ‘Oh really?!’

“He got taken on by Tyne and Wear Fire Service and now works directly opposite South Shields Hospital where he was born.

“He said: ‘Every station I go to someone has got a story about you, you should write a story about it’, then during lockdown, I started jotting down these notes and found it quite therapeutic.

“Putting pen to paper got rid of a lot of their frustration I felt at the time and soon enough I had pages and pages.

“My kids said they don’t know half the stories so I jotted down all these notes and I was going to give it to my kids.

“My wife said to put it in a book and in lockdown, I just sat day in day out writing until I had a full book.”

His book called ‘For the Love of Fire’ documents his career and will be released on Amazon and bookshops on August 12.

You can pre-order the book here.

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Chronicle Live – Sunderland