A former London firefighter has opened up about how his dream job spiralled into a nightmare when years of trauma finally caught up with him.
Now a BBC journalist, Clifford Thompson was a London Fire Brigade officer for half a decade.
From 1987 to 1992 he tackled some of the capital's most devastating events, including the King's Cross tube tragedy and the Clapham rail crash.
But after five years in the brigade, Cliff's world collapsed when he watched a three-year-old boy he rescued from a house fire die before his eyes.
He was subsequently diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and declared "permanently unfit for duty" a year later.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy he's encouraged LFB officers who attended the disaster and seek help rather than risking their mental health.
In his honest book, Falling Through Fire, Cliff openly writes about the highs and lows of firefighting.
He joined the London Fire Brigade (LFB) at the tender age of 19 and candidly describes the heady adrenaline of those first years fighting fires.
Speaking to The Mirror , Cliff said: "Firefighters crave the next callout – the action and drama.
"No one claims to be a hero but most yearn to play that role and love being in the grip of a crisis. It’s an addiction – to the gruesome and the bizarre, fuelled by adrenaline.
"I was well paid for the job I loved and I craved the next shift."
But Cliff's world fell apart in 1990 when Gordon, a three-year-old boy he rescued from an Ilford house fire, died before his eyes.
Cliff rescued Gordon from an upstairs bedroom and managed to resuscitate him in a police car that rushed them both to hospital.
When they reached hospital, Cliff handed the boy over to medics, convinced he was still clinging to life. But then he heard a doctor say: “That’s it. Time of death is 21.34 hours.”
Recalling the moment, Cliff says: "I couldn’t speak – I just couldn’t take it in. I’d saved him…"
From that moment Cliff describes how his world changed, consumed by grief and guilt. He says: "I couldn’t let go of what had happened. It was the start of a decade of soul searching and questioning."
He added: "As professional firefighters, we weren’t expected to show our feelings; it was just our job. I was 25 and had my whole life and career ahead of me. But what happened to Gordon floored me. I felt like a failure."
Cliff became "irrational, temperamental and cruising out of control" until one night he reached crisis point and his parents took him to A&E for psychiatric help.
He was taken to a consultant and diagnosed with PTSD.
Cliff says: "Had I fallen through a roof and shattered my thigh bone, everyone would understand.
“But a psychological wound was a sign of weakness, and that equalled failure in the eyes of some. It took years for attitudes to change.”
But Cliff battled back to health, went to university and began a new career as a TV journalist.
In October 1999 he reported for the BBC on the Ladbroke Grove train crash , which claimed 31 lives. Then, in 2010, he tracked down and met Gordon’s mum Kim and gran Betty, and was able to discuss the events of that terrible night properly for the first time.
“I was reassured Kim had no criticism of my actions,” he says. “But I asked, ‘How do you get over something like this?’ She said, ‘You don’t. It’s always there'.”
Cliff says he admires London Fire Chief Dani Cotton, who has revealed she is having counselling following the Grenfell Tower fire for speaking openly about the psychological impact of the job.
He said: “In my time, admitting you might have been affected by the things you saw wasn’t the done thing.
“Counselling, therapy, weren’t talked about. But attitudes have changed.
“Mental health charity Mind has a Blue Light programme offering support to emergency services staff and volunteers. And now at major incidents like Grenfell firefighters are debriefed before they leave the scene.”
- Falling Through Fire is published by Mirror Books, £7.99. Order at mirrorcollection.co.uk or call 0845 143 0001.
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