John P Humphries lost his life in the line of duty on the 22nd of March 1989. His Red Plaque was unveiled on the 30th anniversary of his death, the 22nd of March 2019.
A firefighter on the Blue Watch at Stanground Fire Station, John was killed by a major explosion while bravely responding to an industrial fire in the Fengate area of Peterborough. He was forty-one at the time of his death.
John’s watch responded to an emergency call alerting them to a blaze in an industrial estate, where a lorry carrying explosives and detonators had caught fire. One of the first firefighters on the scene, John was tackling the fire in the van when the explosion happened and he was struck by shrapnel. He was killed by the subsequent explosion which injured a further 107 people. He. His death deeply affected firefighters across the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, a stark reminder of the dangers frontline firefighters face.
John is permanently remembered with gratitude across Cambridgeshire and the Fire and Rescue Service. The memorial included dozens of people – some who knew John, some who were at the scene when the van exploded, and some firefighters who serve residents in Peterborough currently. The event started with a parade from The Town Hall, led by standard bearers from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service and The Fire Brigades’ Union. They were joined at the front of the parade by a piper, members of John’s family and Mayor of Peterborough cllr Chris Ash. They marched past fire engines parked outside the Town Hall and over to the park. Firefighter Nicola Barlow, who organised the event, opened the service and introduced speakers, including Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU who spoke about the sacrifices made by fire crews every day – and the importance of learning lessons when there were tragedies. Wreathes were laid by the Mayor, the FBU and Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, before the plaque was revealed. Speaking after the service, Ray McDonnell, who worked with John, said:
“We got the first call at 9.36am. I was in my office when I heard a bang. I thought someone had slammed the door. When I got to the scene, I saw the ambulance officer. I asked what had happened and he said ‘you don’t know, do you?’ John was a big part of the watch. He was a family man. It was a small watch, but we were a close knit group. If he is looking down from above, I’m sure he would be proud today.”
Mr McDonnell said firefighters and their families had been hugely affected by what had happened 30 years ago. He said:
“The aftermath was horrible. Mums, wives and girlfriends didn’t want their men to go to work because it could have happened again. It could still happen again. It might not be in this county, but it will happen again.”
Rodney Brailsford has more to thank John Humphries for than most. Mr Brailsford was managing director PPS Print, based a few yards away from where the fire in the van started. He said:
“I was in my office when I heard popping sounds. I assumed it was another incident at the firework factory – but I decided to go and investigate. I found a white Mercedes van with its rear doors open. Inside there were very large – bigger than tennis balls – bright blue balls popping. There were the detonators exploding out of the back of the van – but the van was also carrying gelignite (an explosive substance.) I was within 30 yards of the van, when firefighters, including John told me to get out of the area. If it wasn’t for him I might not be here. It was not John’s lucky day, but it was mine. The service today was beautiful. It was great to see so many people here to remember John.”
Nicola Barlow said lessons had been learnt as a result of the tragedy in Fengate. She said:
“It is important to remind people of what we do. When most people run away from danger, we run towards it. As a direct result of the incident, changes were made to improve safety. Notices were put on vans and lorries if there were explosives inside. The old yellow trousers fire fighters wore were gotten rid of, and visors were put on helmets. Our personal protective equipment was improved so much.”
Cameron Matthews, FBU Eastern Region Chair, said:
“For 30 years John’s death has remained a deeply traumatic and heart-breaking event, etched in the souls of many firefighters in the Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service. Over the past 3 decades little had been done in recognition of the horrifying sacrifice made by John and his family. Our members were determined that this could no longer be allowed to continue. In 2018, Cambridgeshire FBU members took the initiative and applied to the Red Plaque scheme and were one of the first to secure a community memorial for our brother John Humphries. Poignantly the first fire crew to ring this memorial bell on this 30 year anniversary will be Blue Watch.”
His Plaque can be found in a Bishop’s Gardens, a quiet park in Peterborough, where it commemorates his ultimate sacrifice and acts as a testament to the dangers firefighters face every day. Local FBU members have also commissioned a memorial bell to be installed at John’s station, Stanground, which will be rung every year on the anniversary of his death.
Below are memories added by those who knew John Humphries or had a story that they wish to share with you. If you have a tribute for John Humphries that you wish to add, please include your memory below.
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Photo credits: Peter Everard Smith