An American student who will spend Christmas in Belfast has praised the police for making her feel safe despite a raft of bomb alerts, including three explosions in the past five weeks.
Natalie Pavlatos, 23, from Minnesota happened upon the scene shortly after a man burst into flames and ran out of a golf shop in Belfast city centre last week.
The man, believed to be in his mid-40s, ran off from Corn Market after the firebomb he was believed to be carrying went off prematurely.
The incident came just three days after a small bomb exploded in the Cathedral Quarter, forcing hundreds of people who were attending Christmas parties to be evacuated from restaurants and bars in the city’s social centre.
At the end of November a car bomb partially exploded outside Victoria Square shopping centre.
Masked men hijacked a taxi and forced the driver to bring the bomb to the city centre.
At the time, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said there had been a surge in dissident republican activity and a major security operation was launched which saw vehicle checkpoints reintroduced to the streets.
In a period of two weeks police stopped more than 2,000 vehicles.
Queen’s University student Natalie said it is exactly this level of security that has reassured her despite the dissident threat.
She will spend Christmas with some friends in the city and said she is looking forward to it.
“Do I feel unsafe here? I would have to say no,” she said.
“The security presence here is so good. I’ve never felt unsafe in Belfast.”
The masters student, who also spent a semester in Northern Ireland during her undergraduate degree in 2011, said she was on the way to the cinema with friends last week when she came upon a number of police officers who had sealed off part of the city centre.
“We were walking along and noticed the police,” said Natalie. “We didn’t think much of it and only found out later what had happened.
“It turns out we only walked past about 20 minutes after the guy ran out of the shop in flames.”
Natalie said the subject of her masters might explain her ease with, and interest in, the current situation.
“I study ‘Violence Terrorism and Security’ so I guess it interests me, rather than frightens me,” she said.
But Natalie’s calm attitude is not shared by her family back home in America, she added.
“They are probably a lot more concerned than me to be honest,” she said. “I think Belfast is a great city. The people are so friendly and I am really enjoying my time here.
“My friends and I will probably go to a restaurant on Christmas Day. We are not worried at all.”
In what was an eventful week for American student Natalie Pavlatos she stumbled upon two horrors in Belfast.
Having walked past the scene of a firebomb attack just minutes after it happened on Monday, Natalie also came across the scene of a freak accident on Wednesday where a man was impaled on a metal railing.
The man, aged in his 50s, remained in a critical condition at the Royal Hospital yesterday, six days after the incident.
Natalie said she passed the scene where up to eight people were gathered around the man as she walked to class at Queen’s just before 5pm.
“It just looked like someone was huddled over the railings and I thought maybe they were suffering from the cold as it was a particularly windy evening,” she said.
Another woman, who came face-to-face with the man’s horrific injuries, told the News Letter she could see the railing going through his chin.