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Funeral home owner recalls unforgettable firefighting experience

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Reginald Rawlins, owner of Bulley-Graham-Rawlins Funeral Home and former fire chief (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Reginald Rawlins as fire chief in the 1990s (Photograph supplied
Reginald Rawlins during his days with the Bermuda Fire Service (Photograph supplied)

The 1977 fire at the Southampton Princess Hotel was one of the biggest ever in Bermuda, and Reginald Rawlins had the “misfortune” of being the first fireman on the scene.

Adding to the conundrum: it was one of six major fires that night, all of which had to be put out by a skeleton crew.

“I was like, ‘Holy $%*@! Now what?’ The top floor was fully alight. I arrived there with one machine and a ladder truck. I radioed back that I was going to need some help and got the response that ‘what you got is what you got’.”

It was an unforgettable experience for Mr Rawlins, who had joined the Bermuda Fire Service in 1965 after a year as a volunteer. He worked his way to the top and had served 15 years as chief fire officer by the time he left the department in 2001.

The timing was perfect. Brian Graham, the owner of Bulley-Graham Funeral Home, came calling.

“[He] asked me to come and manage it for him,” said Mr Rawlins, who knew nothing at all about running a funeral home but did know how to manage an organisation.

“Everything was in place, the carpenters, the embalmers … I just had to run the business. When it comes to dealing with families and so forth, you don’t need much school training to learn to be nice to people. That came naturally with me.”

After a month Mr Graham asked if he wanted to buy the Mount Hill, Pembroke business.

“It is a nice pace,” Mr Rawlins said. “It is not busy all the time, although we have busy spells. Sometimes we will go through two weeks where every time the phone rings it is another distraught family. Then we go through four or five weeks and have very few customers at all. I enjoy helping people. Give me the problem and we’ll deal with it for you.”

He finds that having a gentle sense of humour helps. It’s not unusual for families to leave Bulley-Graham-Rawlins Funeral Home laughing.

“I tell them let me do all the work and you just enjoy the memories you have of your loved ones.”

Ironically his father, Charles G Rawlins, worked part-time as a pallbearer for local funeral homes. He also ran The Convenience Store, a grocery near their Union Street home.

“I still vividly remember how my father used to dress up in tails and top hat and walk behind the horse-drawn hearse,” Mr Rawlins said. “He looked very regal.”

At Bulley-Graham-Rawlins he tries to emulate some of that dignity and poise his father had all those years ago. At 18, however, it was the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Brigade that drew his interest.

“I was inspired by the Bermudiana Hotel fire which was 1958,” he said. “I was a kid then, but I can remember watching it burn. It literally burnt down. The fire started on the top floor.”

In the 1960s, the fire station was on the corner of Front and Court Streets.

A siren mounted on top of the building was used to call the eight full-time firemen and volunteers.

“In the early 1970s they switched to personal pagers and did away with sirens,” Mr Rawlins said. “I was the first full-time Black fireman in Bermuda. Before that there had been a few Black volunteers.”

Bermuda hired its first full-time fire chief, Martin Grimes, in October 1960 to reorganise the fire service.

“Mr Grimes put the service on a more professional footing and sent personnel abroad for training,” Mr Rawlins said.

It was a fortunate move considering what was to come.

Arsonists set six fires on December 1, 1977 after it was ruled that Larry Tacklyn and Erskine “Buck” Burrows would be hanged the following day for a series of murders.

The two men had been found responsible for the shooting deaths of Shopping Centre grocery owners Victor Rego and Mark Doe in April of 1973; Burrows alone was found guilty of assassinating Governor Richard Sharples and his aide-de-camp Huge Sayers in March of 1973 and murdering Police Commissioner George Duckett the year before.

Many believed the men were innocent of the crimes.

While his colleagues tackled fires at Bristol Cellar, Bermuda Air Conditioning and Goslings Ltd in the City of Hamilton and Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Hamilton Parish, Mr Rawlins battled the blaze at the Southampton Princess.

"I don't want anyone to think I put out the fire single-handedly," he said. "There were many of us working on it. The fire was confined to the main corridor of the east and west wings, which were under renovation. The arsonist set six different fires on that floor. On the north wing there were two other fire crews who were getting the guests off to safety.

"It took quite a few hours to put it out. We went most of the night and into the next morning. Firefighters were coming and going, because of the number of fires going on at the same time. We had a minimal crew and as time went on we had relief crews coming in.”

Three people died – tourists George Gandy and Dorothy Joyce and hotel employee Gladwin Ingham.

"The guests were trapped because of the smoke. They weren’t in imminent danger, as long as they stayed in their rooms, but they couldn’t get out.

“Once it vented itself it was very hot. When the alarm went off, two visitors went up to the top floor to find their relatives. The elevator doors opened, and bang! The third death was a staff member, a duty engineer.”

Mr Rawlins met his wife Karen the year he started full-time at the BFS. She would walk by the station every day around the same time, running errands for her job at nearby A J Gorhams.

“I got up the courage to ask her name. And the rest is history,” he said.

They have been married 46 years. Mrs Rawlins works as an accountant at Bulley-Graham-Rawlins. Their son, Charles, lives overseas.

Mr Rawlins received the Queen’s Fire Service Medal in 1992 and was elected a Freeman of the City of London for his work with the service in 1994.

“I guess I must have impressed someone,” he said. “It was a great honour.”

At 75, retirement is “creeping up on him”, but he is not ready to go just yet.

“At some point I will have to get off the treadmill,” he said. “But I still have a lot of energy and enjoy helping people and doing what I am doing. I am one of those driven people who needs a reason to wake up in the morning. To get up, read the newspaper, walk the dog and then go back to sleep … I don’t think so.”

That he has to deal with death every day doesn’t bother him at all.

“When you’re young you think death happens to older people. When you reach my age it becomes inevitable.

“The older you get, you find that death is part of life. You become more pragmatic about it.”

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published February 24, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated February 23, 2021 at 1:57 pm)

Funeral home owner recalls unforgettable firefighting experience

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