Updated : Monday, 17 January, 2005 10:10 PM
SURVIVING A FIREBOMBING
as told by Keith Harris
If you’ll forgive the pun, having your home firebombed can be an illuminating experience, provided no-one is hurt. In the incident documented here, no one suffered serious injury apart, although some 15 people lost their homes at the time.
I was 26 and living in a large Edwardian house on Crystal Palace Park Road in south London, one of a long row of several such detached properties lining Crystal Palace Park Road and backing on to the park’s main entrance. It was the house closest to the park's main entrance just around the corner in Thicket Road.
I occupied the ground floor flat, a large, high-ceilinged four-roomed apartment with an original and ornate carved oak fireplace in the large room I made into the bedroom. There was a large sun porch built onto the 40ftx30ft living room and the main rooms overlooked the back garden and Crystal Palace Park, separated by a somewhat threadbare and gappy hedge. There was a kitchen facing the front street, a hallway, and the bathroom had a victorian-style but large bathtub with heavy brass taps. There was a functioning gas water boiler in the bathroom. The house was set back some 50 feet or so from the main road, behind a tree lined frontage.
The apartment was a gift from my late friend Ronny Johnson, uncle to my eldest daughter Niko. Ronny lived with his girlfriend Sue in a bright and airy flat beyond the far side of the park. He’d found and prepared the flat for me as a form or repayment after running into trouble and losing another apartment he had been looking after for me while I was away for several years serving time.
I quickly took to being at home in the apartment and immensely enjoyed its location. I would often stroll around the park, regardless of weather, sometimes after midnight, passing through the area containing the lake and scaled down models of prehistoric animals that made the lake area an eerie but pleasant place at night. Or I'd sit and watch the athletics from a bank overlooking the stadium, throw a frisby, or just enjoy the park and its inhabitants. There was also a small open zoo, with a range of exotic animals in open pens and a small pond full of flamingoes.
Several free concerts were held in the peaceful setting of the park's concert arena, including one astonishing free concert that featured the likes of no less than Yes, King Crimson, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Derek and the Dominoes and BB King, Roy Harper and a few other megastars who I have forgotten.
Eileen, Ronny’s sister, and I had parted company three years earlier but he and I were pals.
The similar and wonderful buildings in Crystal Palace Park Road had stood empty for some time and were falling into disrepair when a squatters¹ organisation moved in and approached the local council. Offers were exchanged and the empty houses were soon almost all occupied and being well looked after. Possibly between 30 and 50 people lived in regal condition as squatters, though I cannot vouch for the interior condition of the other houses as I seldom met with their occupants. All services were connected, gas, electric, water and full plumbing etc, though in over a year I never received any bill from anyone.
Six or seven people lived in the basement beneath my apartment, there was another occupied flat with different people staying above and the top floor housed a young woman with her baby daughter.
I had little trouble for the best part of the year I lived in the apartment then things started to become strange. I was disturbed out of my sleep one night by the sound of intruders in the flat and, grabbing a stout wooden shaft I kept beneath my bed, cagily ventured from my bedroom. The main door into the apartment’s hallway stood open and I could see shoe scuff marks on the paint. I could hear voices from the kitchen.
On reaching the open kitchen door I found some seven or eight people inside, male and female, some sitting at the table and others standing around. A full kettle was heating on the stove.
They were junkies and had just decided to use my kitchen. I didn’t know any of them.
I gave them the ultimatum of leaving quietly, leaving on the end of my shaft or leaving when I called the cops, the latter more an empty threat. I was pissed—they hadn’t knocked. Eventually they apologised, finished what they were doing and left.
Some weeks later I was relaxing in my living room late at night when I heard noises from the sun balcony. Heavy drapes in the room prevented any light from spilling out through the large double french windows and so whoever was out there would not know if anyone was inside. I shut off the light and stood waiting by the heavy drapes.
The intruder opened the French doors and at that point I confronted him, pick-axe handle in my hands. It paid to be wary sometimes. His excuse was that he was looking for Ronny who he claimed owed him some money. I recognised him as one of the crowd who had been in the kitchen.
I told him to get the hell out and never come back in such circumstances if he knew what was good for him. Wise for himself, he left.
Some weeks later with Ronny I spotted the same guy stealing a radio from a friend’s car. We cornered him and gave him the option of leaving the radio and walking away or facing the alternative, us. He put the radio down and left.
The firebombing happened in the early evening. A heroin-sick friend was temporarily staying in the living room and I had retired to the privacy of my bedroom and music but had not gone to bed. Then I heard the thunk of something thrown against the front door to the flat, followed immediately by the muffled but heavy whoomph of petrol exploding into flames against the door.
I was in the hallway immediately and saw flames coming in from beneath and around the edges of the door. I was wise enough not to even attempt opening the door. I guessed just what was happening and ran in to my guest only to find him semiconscious and mumbling incoherently, sitting stooped over his crossed legs on the floor with an empty syringe still dangling from his arm. I dragged him out onto the sun balcony then grabbed a heavy stick from the garden and ran to the front of the house.
Nobody was in sight but the flames had taken rapid hold. Immediately outside my door and visible through the large stairway windows running up the middle of the house from the ground floor to the top was the single, wide stairway connecting all floors. It was impossible for anybody to get down from above my own floor. The stairway was already fiercley ablaze
People were running out from the basement and were soon hurridely carrying out valuables to safety. The fire brigade wsa summoned and were soon at the scene. Then we noticed the girl in the top floor flat shouting from the window. Along with her baby, she had to be brought to safety down the emergency ladder by firemen.
By the time the fire was brought under control, the house had been made uninhabitable, though the damage was not as severe as it might have been. If I had opened the apartment door, the consequences could have been far worse for us inside the flat. The folk in the flat above me had been out.
I spent the night at the house of friends in Penge and two days later found myself another small house to myself in Sydenham. The old houses in Crystal Palace Park Road are still there but have been modernised.
Coming soon — a true supernatural tale about the Sydenham house - read the teaser
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