On what was supposed to be his retirement party, a Northern Ireland firefighter was called to assist in the rescue of 28 calves from a slurry tank in Co. Armagh.

The on-call crew commander, John Holmes of Newcastle fire station, Co. Down was set to undertake his last drill night, before gathering with his colleagues and officers together at the station to mark his retirement.

Agriland spoke to Holmes, who said: “I was to finish at 12 o’clock that night.”

His 42-year service with the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) was due to come to an end at the station, until a call was received at 5:30p.m on Monday evening (July 31).

The urgent call came to the station regarding assistance needed at a farm near Cullyhanna, Co. Armagh, where 28 calves had become trapped in a slurry tank.

The Newcastle fire station crew were then tasked to respond to the call, as the station is one of the NIFRS’s animal rescue stations.

Officers at the station were to proceed to the incident, foregoing the farewell event as they were now all committed to aid in the rescue of the calves.

According to the NIFRS, the officers leaving the station “disrupted the farewell event”, with Holmes “not expected to attend the call”.

However, on what was supposed to be an occasion celebrating his retirement, the NIFRS said “he insisted on attending”.

Not only did Holmes attend, but the firefighter took charge of the animal rescue team for the rescue of the calves from the slurry tank at the farm.

Holmes said: “We took two crews out of Newcastle to make the rescue.”

Slurry tank

The farmer had told the rescue team roughly how many calves were in the tank, and had also pumped some of the slurry out of the tank to assist in the rescue, leaving two feet of slurry in the tank.

Holmes said: “It’s a good job there was slurry in it because it’s a big drop down and the slurry cushioned their fall.

“It’s hard to believe they all fell down the one hole.”

It is thought that the mixing hole was the cause of where the calves had fallen into the slurry tank.

For the rescue, ropes were put around each of the calves and they were lifted out one by one, with Holmes saying, “they were easy enough to lift”.

“You have to assess the situation before you go in a tank,” Holmes continued.

“It’s not all about rescuing the animals, it’s about looking after the farmer. If we don’t turn out, he’ll try it by himself and he could lose his life. That’s the worry.”

Holmes said the farmer involved “was very happy” and that he said there was no way he could have done the rescue on his own.

“He made the right decision, he made the right call,” Holmes stated.

“It was a good, successful rescue, everything went according to plan.”

The NIFRS said that Holmes played a “central hands-on role in the safe and successful rescue of every one of the 28 calves” that had come into difficulty.

Following the success of the rescue of the calves, the farewell event for the firefighter was rescheduled to take place a different night.

Holmes also attended another call that same night with the crew in response to a smoke alarm in someone’s home, before finishing up for the night.

The NIFRS has said that the retirement presentation for Holmes’ 42 years of service is set to take place on Monday, August 7, instead.

He said: “I enjoy the job, I love the job but I’m going. I made my decision to go.”

With the retirement under a week away, Holmes said the event will go ahead, “if there is no calls”.