THE most terrified Fireman 251 Arthur Levick ever felt was when a duty commander shouted at him, from above the roar of flames, to go and join his crew.
“I looked in his eyes and knew straight away what he was doing,” recalls the 68-year-old today.
“He was making sure each crew died together so identifying the bodies would be easier. We were dealing with what was basically a timebomb and he was preparing for when it exploded...”
Arthur lived to tell the tale.
A good job too, for if he hadn’t, neither would most of Sheffield’s east end.
Nor would he have been able to recount it in an edge-of-your-seat autobiography – A Sheffield Fireman’s Tale – published by ALD Print this month
That timebomb was set ticking in 1967 when two tankers delivering naphtha to Effingham Road Gas Works, in Attercliffe, collided in nearby Sussex Street.
The flammable liquid leaked on to a roadworks paraffin lamp causing a huge explosion.
But with those flames licking at the gas works that particular bang was nothing compared to what would happen if the fire lit the gas.
“They had a gas board engineer on the phone but he refused to come any closer than the Wicker Arches,” says Arthur, whose Elm Lane patrol was on duty. “There was talk of an evacuation and the police asked where it should start. He said Walkley.
“I thought ‘Oh God!’ You know you’re a hair’s breadth from disaster. But you don’t say anything. You get on with it. It’s your duty.”
Get on with it, he did. For eight hours. He stood, while other colleagues put out the fires, spraying water on the gas works trying to stop them overheating and exploding.
“We stayed through the night,” he says. “I was still a young man then but it was probably the most frightened I’ve ever been.”
The incident was just one of hundreds experienced during 30 years service with Sheffield’s fire services. He was also at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and the British Steel Tinsley Works fire of 1974 which killed two colleagues.
Now, he has collated those memoirs in four separate volumes – the first of which has gone on sale.
Charting his life from joining in 1963 to 1974, it depicts an age before health and safety, radio communication – and political correctness.
In one fabulous passage the entire patrol brawls with a group of drunks in the fire station after the gang’s girlfriends blew kisses through the window.
In another, a man with a bolt attached to his genitalia is taken back to base to give all the lads a look.
But it was also a period – brawls, bolts and a brothel on fire, aside – of great pride in the uniform, and of that death-defying fearlessness. All of which Arthur, a married grandfather-of-three of Holly Close, Chapeltown, wanted to capture.
“When I retired in 1992 I had a lot of time and I decided to share these tales with my grandchildren,” he explains. “At first it was going to be partially fiction – but staying true to life was more exciting.”
Proud of his achievement, he sent the manuscript to various firms and Huddersfield’s Wharncliffe took it on.
“But they kept asking me to change bits,” says Arthur. “At one point they said if I made a few alterations it could be used for a London’s Burning script but I said it was a Sheffield book.”
He withdrew the manuscript and thought no more about it – until a friend asked if he could have a copy.
“I thought I’d get 10 or so made properly,” explains Arthur, who eventually rose to sub-officer at Elm Lane. “I sent it to ALD Print, in Sharrow Vale Road, and the manager read it. He liked it and asked if he could release it. I couldn’t believe it. That’s what I’d wanted for years.”
n A Sheffield Fireman’s Tale: Servant To The Phoenix is available in The Star shop.