One of South Yorkshire’s longest-serving fire officers has stepped down after three decades. Meanwhile, his eldest son is taking over the family tradition of public service as an Army engineer. Richard Marsden reports.
Neil Hessell has pretty much seen it all during three decades helping to keep South Yorkshire safe.
Having just retired as Assistant Chief Fire Officer, he has come to the end of a career which has involved scores of house fires and road accidents, plus major incidents including the 2007 floods and Fletcher’s Bakery fire at Wadsley Bridge, an incident he commanded.
“I’ve enjoyed my career serving the people of South Yorkshire in very interesting, challenging, sometimes sad and tragic but also rewarding circumstances,” the 50-year-old said.
He joined the service in 1982, having previously worked at Cole Brothers department store, where he met his wife of 26 years, Marie.
Neil, who lives in Crosspool, said: “I was trained at Eastwood in Rotherham and my first station was at Oaks Lane, Kimberworth Park. Over the next 10 years, I served at several stations all over South Yorkshire.”
Neil’s first major incident came just a couple of years into his career - and was said at the time to have been the biggest blaze in Sheffield since the Blitz in World War Two.
He said: “It was at the National Freight depot, on Brightside Lane, which is today the Royal Mail site. The fire happened before Christmas in 1984 and burned for several days. The smoke could be seen for miles and debris fell from the plume into people’s gardens.
“The warehouse was filled with everything ranging from High Street goods to vintage cars. I remember picking my wife up from work at Cole’s, driving past it and saying ‘that’ll be where I’m going tonight’.”
The blaze which was fought by several hundred firefighters and the cost of the damage put at £20 million. Smaller incidents also proved ‘positive and rewarding’.
He recalled: “Although I have been directly or indirectly involved in a number of rescues, the very first one is always the one that usually stays in my mind.
“This was a rescue of a heavily pregnant lady and her husband from the first floor of a house fire in Wincobank in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
“The terraced house was well alight on the ground floor and they were waiting to be rescued from a bedroom window.
“I was a firefighter at Oaks Lane at the time. The fire was cooking related - from what I recall the husband had been out on a drinking session the night before, returned home and cooked chips in a chip pan.
“He lost a lot of his house contents but it could have been so much worse. Although this happened many years ago its a stark reminder that drinking and cooking don’t go hand in hand. This was also pre-smoke alarm days - as well as the cooking message we must all make sure we fit and maintain a smoke alarm and have a fire evacuation plan.”
In the early 1990s, Neil was promoted to a management role, starting off working around fire stations before being moved into headquarters in Sheffield.
But his role remained demanding. In July 2006, he was called upon to command crews fighting the huge blaze which engulfed Fletcher’s Bakery at Wadsley Bridge.
He said: “I was at the headquarters on a Sunday morning when there was an alert about a major incident.
“As I drove along Penistone Road towards the scene, I could see from Shalesmoor that it was a very established fire.
“It was particularly challenging because the incident happened in the middle of summer when crews were busy with grass fires and other small incidents.
“The bakery was in operation when the fire broke out, being a business that worked 24 hours, and the most positive thing was that nobody was injured either among the Fletcher’s workforce or the fire service.”
A year later, in the summer of 2007, Neil recalled how he was ‘involved for many days working extremely long hours’ to cope with the devastating floods.
He said: “I’d never experienced anything like it. It’s hard to comprehend that there were Sea King helicopters rescuing people from rooftops in Sheffield.
“I was involved in the logistical side during the early stages but by days two and three, I was over in the Doncaster area where many homes had been flooded.
“I worked with the local authorities on the recovery strategy.”
Neil added: “In the last three decades, I have dealt with a wide range of incidents, from tragic fires to road traffic accidents and other difficult incidents.
“Over my career, the service has also worked hard on community safety and one of the very significant improvements has been that the number of accidental deaths in house fires has fallen from 15 to 30 per year to around four or five.
“It’s down to a combination of educational work involving partner agencies including South Yorkshire Police and the councils, installation of smoke alarms and, in some cases, different building construction.”
Neil, who has three children - Carl, 24, Ryan, 22, and Leanna, 19 - leaves the service as it faces a tough few years due to Government cuts.
But he said: “However changes have occurred in recent years, they have had little or no impact on the level of service provided.
“I’m confident that any changes which take place due to the current situation will have a minimal impact on public safety.”
Leanna is at university and Ryan works in IT - but Carl has taken on the family tradition of public service by joining the Army.
He has now started his first tour of duty in Afghanistan as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.
Neil, who has not yet decided what to do in retirement, said he and his wife feel ‘proud’ of Carl for joining up and serving the country.
He said: “We are obviously apprehensive about his tour but it’s a very important job that Carl and the rest of his colleagues are involved with, and we are doing all we can to support him.”
Son Carl’s mission in Afghanistan war
CARL Hessell is serving his country in a very different way from his father - but is enthusiastic about his role amid the danger of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
The 24-year-old has been in the Army full-time for two years, having previously spent two years in the Territorial Army’s 106 Field Squadron Royal Engineers, based at Greenhill.
Carl became a reservist in 2008 while working for engineering firm Hallamshire Heating - and joined up full-time for the ‘excitement’ of life in uniform, and to ‘learn new things’.
He has been based in Germany prior to deployment, with parent unit 42 Field Squadron Royal Engineers.
The week Carl arrived in Afghanistan in September, the threat posed by the Taliban was demonstrated with an attack on the main British base, Camp Bastion, in which insurgents breached perimeter defences and entered the base.
Most of the rebel fighters were killed in a gunfight but not before aircraft and hangars belonging to the US had been destroyed.
Carl was at Camp Bastion during the incident doing a week’s initial training on arrival in the war zone.
He has since been deployed to Forward Operating Base Wahid, in the Nad-e Ali area of Helmand, which has been a quieter experience so far.
“It’s been pretty peaceful out here. We’ve heard about things happening but nothing has actually troubled us,” Carl said.
Carl, who is attached to 21 Engineer Regiment, said: “I’m with a troop of 36 engineers, who are doing work to upgrade the base.
“We’ve raised the height of around 200 metres of boundary wall and are improving the front gate. The base houses more than 200 people, who are mainly British Gurkha soldiers.”
Former Tapton School pupil Carl is due back in Sheffield this month for a two-week mid-tour break.
But he is being sent a reminder of home by his parents, in the form of the Yorkshire-themed Monopoly set to help pass the time when off duty.
Carl said he is relieved to have been deployed during the cooler autumn and winter months rather than summer, when temperatures can reach 50C.
He said: “It’s OK at the moment, around the mid 20s - although it’s freezing at night. It’s good to get out here after all the training I’ve done, and just to experience it.”
■ Carl is appealing for donations of welfare items for his troop at FOB Wahid. Postage is free for items of up to two kilogrammes.
Address is 30079658 Spr Hessell, 7tp, 4AES, 21 Engr Regt, Camp Bastion, Op Herrick 17, BFPO 792.