Welsh valley remembers fire heroes

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Sorrow and pride filled a South Wales valley as completely as the snow yesterday when the community paid tribute to two of its brave men.

The little Gwent town of Blaina mourned the deaths of Kevin Lane, 32, and Stephen Griffin, 10 years his senior, part-time firemen who died eight days earlier doing what every fire-fighter may be called upon to do - attempting to save a life without any thoughts for their own safety.

Blaina is 20 miles north of the M4, but it might as well be a world away. It was still covered in snow when the two were buried with the sort of honours accorded to soldiers killed on active service.

The men had rescued a boy from a blazing house in Zephania Way, Blaina, and went back into the inferno when it was mistakenly reported that a second child was trapped. There was a massive explosion and both died instantly.

A guard of 28 fire-fighters - one a woman - stood to attention outside the town's fire station to await the arrival of the coffins on a hydraulic platform vehicle, the pride of the Brigade. Honour guardsmarched beside the vehicles as the cortege wound its way down the silent High Street. Around 1,000 fire-fighters from all over Britain - and some from the Irish Republic - lined the pavements, alongside the townspeople. The order "Off caps" was given as the procession neared.

The silence was broken only by the chug of the engines. The shops, typical of a valley community - the Wella Head hairdressers, the Co-op, Marshman's Footwear, the Bush Inn, Zeraschi's Cafe - were closed. A notice in Lloyds Bank urged donations to a fund for bereaved relatives.

More than pounds 4,000 has already been raised.

The cortege halted at St Peter's Church, where a guard of 14 fire-fighters wearing plumed and burnished helmets, waited in the icy wind.

The Welsh Dragon and Union Flags flew at half-mast over public buildings.

In the church, Terence Glossop, Gwent's chief fire officer, spoke for all when he read the eulogy. "Both Stephen and Kevin gave exemplary, dedicated service to the Brigade and the community of Blaina. In the true spirit of the service both were attempting to save young lives threatened by fire on the fateful day."

Mr Griffin's 17-year-old daughter, Tina, sang. A bugler sounded "The Last Post" and a piper played the lament "Flowers of the Forest". At the cemetery Mr Lane's son, eight-year- old David, who shared the cab of the vehicle carrying his father's body, was presented with the yellow helmet often worn by his father.

Mr Griffin's helmet was handed to Andrew, his 20-year-old student son. The Welsh Dragon flags were removed from the coffins, folded carefully and handed to relatives. Reveille sounded and as mourners filed past the graves the sun began to sparkle on the snow-whitened valley.

The valley is no stranger to tragedy. The headstone of one of the hundreds of graves carries the inscription "Wilfred, husband of Bronwen Thomas. Six Bells, 28 June 1960. Aged 58." He was one of 45 miners killed in an underground explosion at a nearby collierynearly 36 years ago.

But the valley is also steeped in community spirit. In a building with the inscription "Blaina Reading Institute and Library. Subscription 6d monthly", members of the WRVS, distinctive in orange overalls, prepared tea and refreshments for the mourners.

Both Mr Lane and Mr Griffin are to be recommended for gallantry awards. In a few days time, Fleur Lombard, the 21-year-old Avon fire-fighter who died in a burning supermarket in Bristol, just three days after the Blaina blaze, will be buried. The contribution made by some to the wider community are often taken for granted until stark tragedy strikes. At Blaina yesterday, that contribution was recognised in full.