Two businessmen have described the moment a would-be arsonist suddenly burst into flames before their eyes.
The extraordinary scenes unfolded at the Golf Madness shop at Corn Market, which is believed to have been the target of an inept incendiary attack on Monday evening – the latest in a string of security incidents to hit Belfast city centre.
No one, except possibly the man carrying the device, was injured in the incident, which led to a major security operation during the very height of the Christmas shopping season.
Andrew Rose, 44-year-old co-owner of the shop, had been standing close to the entrance when the man entered around 6.30pm, dressed in a black beanie-style hat and a dark jacket.
“It was probably inside of 20 seconds it happened,” he said.
“We approach most customers that come in just to say ‘can we help you?’. Whether it’s shoes or clothing or whatever the thing is.
“This guy came in, and I was making my way towards him. He was flustering around with his jacket, and I said: ‘Can I help you?’.
“There was no response. So, just stood there. Within seconds he lit into flames.
“I said: ‘You’re on fire! You’re on fire!’. And then he looked down, and he was on fire.
“Next thing he turned and ran out of the shop.”
The whole front of his jacket was ablaze, and he made an effort to pat down the flames before running out and to the left, towards Ann Street.
Police have issued an appeal to track down the man, who may have been forced to seek treatment for burns.
As the blundering would-be firebomber fled, a battery and wires dropped on to the shop floor, also in flames.
These were kicked out of the door and into the street.
Mr Rose said it had appeared like there was a white package under the man’s jacket too, and that some sort of powder had fallen out and ended up on the carpet.
As for the customers who were shopping at the time, he said: “People just left instantly. They couldn’t leave quick enough.”
What followed was a succession of street closures as police cordoned off much of the city centre and sent in two bomb disposal trucks to examine the device.
The only visible remnant of the incident yesterday was a small scorch mark on the pavement outside the shop.
The store will continue to trade up until its closing date.
Also watching the event unfold had been Nick Pierpoint, Mr Rose’s business partner.
The 46-year-old from Ballycarry was standing further back in the shop, which he estimated had up to 15 customers inside at the time, and said: “I got a side-on view of the whole thing...
“The guy just burst into flames. Obviously my first concern was for him, because I didn’t realise what was going on at that stage.”
The first time he saw the device – which he described as a “charcoal-ey thing” with a little square battery in it – was when it lay on the street outside.
He said the event had left them “stunned – rabbit in the headlights. Shocked. We didn’t know what to do”.
Mr Rose, a former RBAI pupil, now running clothing wholesaler P&R Agencies, believes the plan may have been to dump the device into one of his boxes of goods.
He added: “It was believed the guy was moving around, he’d been in other stores.
“There was thousands and thousands of people in Belfast [on Monday night]. We were just commenting that this really has kicked off.”
Mr Pierpoint said: “I’m a child of the ’70s and ’80s. I went through all of this when we did have very draconian and correct security measures.
“Thankfully those days are behind us.
“I think the one thing, the one message we really want to get across is Golf Madness is very much open and ready for business – as is the whole of Belfast.”
Asked about security measures back in the 1970s and ’80s, and what he would call for now, he said: “They were correct – for that time. I don’t think they’re correct for this time.
“I don’t think they’re correct for the modern day and the society we live in at the moment.
“I think we need to be cognizant of what’s going on. I think we need to be diligent. And I think we need to work in a co-ordinated way with the police as we have been doing in recent times.”