Remembering hero firefighter 40 years on

Forty years ago West Yorkshire firefighter Jeff Naylor ran into a burning building and gave his life in a bid to save others.

Jeff Naylor when he joined the fire service

On the anniversary of that tragic incident, staff from the fire service are showing how his actions, to help save children trapped in a burning house, will never be forgotten.

A special service is being held next month when Jeff’s family will join fire service personnel to pay tribute to the man that has missed out on seeing his six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

It was the morning of April 27th, 1983, when Jeff was part of a team that responded to a house fire in Keighley. He rushed into the burning building to save trapped children inside with his firefighting partner Steve Harrison. Jeff’s courageous efforts cost the 31-year-old father-of-two his life.

He was the last fireman to die on active duty in West Yorkshire and this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death.

On that morning firefighters arrived on the scene to discover five children were inside the burning building. Without any regard for his own safety, Jeff Naylor rushed into the building. By the end of the incident the crews had saved three siblings, two children tragically died.

It wasn't the first time Jeff had displayed such bravery as three years prior he had received a commendation for rescuing four children from a fire in Dalton Lane. 

The people of West Yorkshire rallied together to show their support and pay tribute to him after his death. Thousands attended his funeral with full fire service honours and he was posthumously awarded with a commendation from Queen Elizabeth II for Gallantry in Saving Life.                                            

To honour him and commemorate what he did, a fire engine was named after him at Keighley Fire Station where he served before his death.

Also, improved protection of firefighter uniforms was introduced nationally as a tribute to him and other firefighters who have paid similar sacrifices for our safety over the years.

Jeff’s daughter, Jayne Graham, said she was just six when her father died – but his absence has been felt ever since.

“There have been so many times over the last four decades when we wished he was there – especially as he’s missed the chance to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Jayne, who has three children Billy, 21, Jorja, 17, and Jack, 14.

“I don’t remember much from the time he died, I have a vague memory of a fire chief knocking on our door to tell us the news, as we didn’t have a phone at the time. But he was always a devoted dad and made sure he was there for us. There are times over the years when it has been hard – such as the day I got married. Instead, it was my dad’s brother who walked me down the aisle. He would be so proud to see his growing family and how well everyone is doing.”

Jayne’s brother Mark also has three daughters – Daniella, aged 34 Leanne, aged 31, and Abby, 22 as well as stepson Ethan, 19. Jayne said: “I think it was the love my dad had for me and my brother that made him prioritise those children that were trapped in the burning house. As most parents know, you have a strong instinct to save a child in distress.

“I can’t believe it’s been 40 since he died, but it’s a blessing that he was the last person on active service in West Yorkshire to have died.”

Eddie Presland was a close friend and colleague of Jeff’s. They had trained together and were crew member on the same watch. Eddie said: “This year marks forty years since Jeff Naylor gave up his own life so others could live theirs. Not only should we remember him this year but every year hereafter too for reminding us all how precious life is and inspiring us with incredible acts of bravery and courage.

“We can only hope that if ever faced with such adversity ourselves we could even come close to displaying as much bravery as Jeff did all those years ago! Rest in peace Jeff. You will never be forgotten.”

In his statement to West Yorkshire Police, from his hospital bed, Jeff recalled the following details: “I picked up the child and suddenly there was a flashover and all went red. I was knocked over and fell downstairs because of the blast. I picked the child up again but there was another blast and I lost hold of her. I staggered downstairs and must have gone into the room where the fire was because I felt myself burning.”

The girl’s mother described to reporters how Jeff was “the bravest man I have ever seen… The fire engine didn’t even have time to stop before he was in through the door. He just went straight in regardless of the flames lashing out of the front room.”

Jeff fought for his life in the burns unit at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, surrounded by hundreds of get well cards and presents from well-wishers. He sadly succumbed to his injuries on July 10th.

Eddie said: “As a show of respect and remembrance, the town’s fire engine was named in his honour. We all remembered him as a quiet but dedicated worker and someone you could always rely on.

“Following campaigning by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and collaboration between local and national consultative bodies, an improved and safer uniform was introduced across the country. To this day, his name shall remain an inspiration to all firefighters - an unwavering commitment to the safety of others.”

Nick Smith, assistant chief fire officer, said that important changes have taken place over the last 40 years to help keep firefighters safe. “Looking back at this tragic incident reminds us how far we have come in the last four decades,” he said. “As we remember Jeff and the sacrifice he made to save others, we can also see how much the service has transformed. We must always keep firefighter safety at the forefront of our minds when it comes to decision making. At West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service we will continue to innovate and improve while investing in training and equipment to keep our firefighters safe.”