My dad died in a house fire and now I want to be a firefighter

“When they told me I didn’t want to believe them. I can still remember running to the bedroom and just looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself that he wasn’t dead.”

In April 2001, Catrin McLellan was four years old and loving life on holiday with her mother, her brother and her gran in a caravan in Porthcawl.

It’s the kind of hazy, spring memory that young children can remember certain aspects of. For Catrin, however, there was one night in that caravan that will forever be etched at the front of her mind.  

45 miles to the west, her father was in the family home in Aberwgili, on the outskirts of Carmarthen. On the morning of April 24, 2001, shortly after 3.30am, the fire service were called to the house, which had burst into flames.

Catrin’s father, the popular 38-year-old Andy McLellan, was inside. He never came out.

Catrin outside the house where her father died in 2001
(Image: Robert Melen)

Catrin, as a baby, with her father Andy
(Image: Catrin Mclellan)

“What we learned is that my father had had a couple of drinks and then lit a cigarette,” reveals Catrin, more than 18 years since the night that changed her world.

“We think he’d fallen asleep and the cigarette caused a fire. They weren’t able to get him out. He died in the house.”

In the hours that followed, Catrin’s uncles travelled to Porthcawl to relay in person the tragedy that had unfolded at home. They had the task of breaking the news of Andy’s death to his wife and his two young children.

“I remember it as clear as day,” said Catrin. “My uncles lived across the road from where the fire happened, and they drove that morning to tell us in person.

“I remember them knocking on the door, and then I remember me running to the bedroom and just looking straight in the mirror and telling myself that he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead. They were lying, they had to be.”

Catrin admits she was ‘angry for a long time’ after her father died
(Image: Robert Melen)

It took Catrin and her brother Rhys a long time to come to terms with what had happened.

“I was angry for a long time,” she admitted. “It took me 10 years to realise he wasn’t coming back.

“But one day, on the 10th anniversary of his death, I wrote him a letter and, for some reason, that was that. I just had to get on with life. Right away, all that pain was gone.

“It’s still been a struggle at times but my brother and the rest of the family have all been there so I haven’t lost out on any support. My mum has been my absolute rock; she’s been a mother and a father to me and my brother.”

A young Catrin with her older brother Rhys and her father
(Image: Catrin Mclellan)

A news report of the tragedy that shocked everyone in Abergwili
(Image: Catrin Mclellan)

 

One would imagine that for anyone who has lost a loved one in a house fire, the urge to bury the pain would be strong; to suppress any feelings about it, to shut it out as much as possible and to ignore any lingering memories that could reawaken the heartbreak.

However, the courage inside Catrin means she’s doing the exact opposite. She still lives in Abergwili, in her grandmother’s old house – opposite where her father lost his life.

On top of that, she has one dream job. It’s been her dream since the age of four. She wants to be a firefighter.

This ambition was reaffirmed further as part of a new television series which starts on S4C this week. The show, called Yn y Gwaed (In the Blood) aims to help young people across Wales discover their calling in life through looking at their psychological strengths and family histories.

‘I feel like I just want to help people,’ says Catrin
(Image: Robert Melen)

Catrin as a baby with her mother, Meinir, her father and her brother
(Image: Robert Melen)

For Catrin, who currently works as a call handler at Dyfed-Powys Police headquarters on the outskirts of Carmarthen, the show gave her the chance to work at Carmarthen Fire Station – a stint which confirmed to her something that she has known since that fateful April day 18 years ago.

“I think every young girl wants to be a singer to start with, really, and I was no different, except I couldn’t sing,” laughed Catrin.

“Apart from that, I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. I think on some level it must be down to what happened.

“Having been given the opportunity to spend a day with firefighters it really confirmed that it’s ultimately what I want to do in life, and it was even better than I thought it would be.

“You understand quickly that being a firefighter is about so much more than just putting out fires, but I feel like I just want to help people. That’s my calling, really.

“I feel that if I only help one person, it will almost be like I’m helping that little girl in the caravan; I would be helping the young me.

“Of course I still miss my father. He’s missed so much of what I’ve done – school, college, my 18th, my 21st.

“I can still remember him picking me up after I’d fallen and singing Cliff Richard to me. He would take my brother and me camping in the garden, too. Because of that, still living across the road from where my life changed forever isn’t a bad thing.

“It’s a place full of good times, too, and wonderful memories.”