Today marks exactly 30 years since a tragic blaze claimed six lives, including those of two pre-teenage children.
The fire at Belfast’s Maysfield Leisure Centre broke out on January 14, 1984, causing noxious, stifling smoke to billow from burning foam gym mats – with lethal effects.
Retired reverend Jim Rea, 68, from Castlereagh, was an eyewitness at the scene, and declared himself “deeply troubled” by the scenes he encountered that day.
He is the former head of the Methodist Church’s mission in east Belfast, and was ministering in the area at the time of the incident.
It unfolded on a Saturday, and he thinks he was at a football match as word of the disaster spread. As soon as he heard about it, he rushed to the scene just next to the Albert Bridge.
“I was down there when they brought the remains of the people out,” he said.
“I got there quite quickly. The immediate concern in the first instance was it was a terrorist attack on the leisure centre.”
But although it became apparent it was not a bombing, the effects were just as deadly.
While emergency services worked, Rev Rea gained access to the reception area of the centre and saw victims of the smoke being brought in from an area at the back of the centre.
“It was a tragic and very sad event at the time,” he said.
“I remember trying to give some comfort to people at the time who were relatives of the deceased.”
He added: “I did see one woman being stretchered out who was obviously dead.”
Her body had been covered up by the emergency services, but he believes that the woman in question was Lorraine Gibson, a young east Belfast mother who died along with her two daughters.
According to the News Letter’s report on January 16, 1984, Mrs Gibson was from Holland Drive, and was 27.
The paper also lists her deceased daughters Julie and Angela as being aged just 10 and seven respectively (though their ages were given as seven and nine in a later edition).
The other victims of the tragedy were listed as follows: David Michael Bates, 16, from Springvale Park, north-west Belfast; James Reid Smyth, 34, from Glenview Park, south-east Belfast; and Cecil White, 64, from Holland Drive.
During the course of his ministry, Rev Rea said he encountered the aftermaths of a “considerable number of paramilitary incidents”.
“I had a fair full lot of that stuff over the years. None of it is pleasant. None of it is easy,” he said. “And I remember going to church the day afterwards feeling deeply troubled by what I’d seen that day; deeply traumatised.”
The Maysfield Leisure Centre, which had been run by Belfast City Council, closed down in 2004. A spokesman for the council yesterday said: “Our thoughts are with the families who were affected at this time.”