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Highland family say smoke alarms saved their lives after house fire

Penny MacDonell DeJesus
Penny MacDonell DeJesus

A family who escaped unharmed after fleeing their burning house say they owe their lives to new smoke alarms fitted just a few weeks ago.

Three generations of the family, including two young children, were in the house in Castle Street, Fortrose, when a fire broke out in a boiler on Friday night.

The owner of the property Lois MacDonell, who is in her 70s, and her daughter Penny MacDonell DeJesus, 44, rushed outdoors with Mrs DeJesus’s children Vivienne, six, and Mark, four, who were roused from their sleep.

The alarm was raised around 10.45pm and the road as cordoned off while four fire appliances attended the blaze. Firefighters remained for more than six hours at the house, which was severely damaged.

Mrs DeJesus, who is an interpreter at the United Nations in New York, was staying with her children during lockdown in the family home where she grew up.

They had moved to Fortrose from the US expecting to stay for two weeks in the summer, but remained.

‘The smoke detectors were going berserk’

She praised neighbours and friends who rallied round to help the family with temporary accommodation, food and clothes, and to salvage furniture and family heirlooms, including some belonging to her war hero father, the late Air Commodore Donald MacDonell.

Mrs DeJesus said: “At the time of the fire the children were upstairs asleep. I had a meeting that went on until 10pm, which I’m really grateful for as it meant I was still up. My mum was watching TV.

“We were getting ready to go to bed when we heard a crazy sound. The smoke detectors were going berserk.”

Fortrose fire

She said the specialist alarm system was installed for her mother, a retired research psychologist who is hard of hearing, and fitted just before Christmas.

Mrs DeJesus added: “I want to warn people to check their alarms are working properly because they were fantastic and possibly saved our lives.”

She said she went into the hallway and smelled smoke coming from the bedroom which she was using, and which backs onto her mother’s room.

“I opened a cupboard where the boiler is and it was just ablaze. I didn’t attempt to put it out, I just shut the door and wanted to try to contain the fire.

“I screamed at mum ‘there is a really bad fire, phone 999’.

“We then woke the kids and took them downstairs and outside in their pyjamas in the cold. I just wanted everyone to get out safely.”

She and her mother then woke neighbours on either side to alert them as the fire intensified.

‘Outpouring of support from community has been amazing’

Mrs DeJesus thanked local people and friends who have helped the family following the blaze.

She added: “The outpouring of support from the community has been beyond understanding. It’s been amazing.

“We are so grateful, it’s been incredible. I’ve been inundated with messages of support.

“I thought everything had been destroyed, but it turned out the children’s room was the least affected. People donated hot meals, food, clothes, shoes, gift cards, everything you can think of.

The fire caused extensive damage

“We tried to salvage as much as possible and on Saturday there were about 20 people here in the pouring rain helping to take stuff out of the house. One man turned up with a container for the furniture.

“It was hard, there are a lot of memories in there.

“People we had never met before were moving and packing things. Around five different people are also doing laundry for us.”

The family stayed with a neighbour overnight and then another family learned of their plight and offered their home for a week while they were away following a family bereavement.

House was once home to war hero fighter pilot

The house hit by the fire is owned by Lois MacDonell, widow of the late Air Commodore Aenas Ranald Donald MacDonell, the 22nd Chief of Glengarry.

Mr MacDonell, who died aged 85 in 1999, was a decorated Battle of Britain spitfire pilot during the Second World War.

He was captured in 1941 and helped organise escape attempts from a PoW camp, including a famous incident using a wooden gym vaulting horse to dig a tunnel under the noses of the German guards.

Each day the horse, with tunnel diggers inside, was carried into the exercise yard and positioned over the entrance to the escape route. The prisoners then carried the soil in bags suspended inside their trousers and scattered on the compound as they walked. The film The Wooden Horse from a novel of the same name was released in 1950.

Mr MacDonell was a Squadron Leader aged only 25 and was one of Winston Churchill’s “few”. His heroics in the air earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also mentioned in despatches in 1945 for distinguished services.

After promotion to Air Commodore he was sent to Moscow as air attache to the British embassy and helped gather intelligence on Russia during the Cold War.

A specially commissioned memorial was unveiled on Clan Donald land at Armadale in Skye. The memorial consists of a rock taken from clan land at Glengarry, surmounted by a bronze raven created by noted sculptor Gerald Laing, depicting the Glengarry crest, Creag an Fhithich, The Raven’s Rock.

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