The father of three children left homeless after a fire gutted their home has praised the community for rallying round to support them.
Stephen Bernes also praised his ex-wife’s partner, John O’Hare for saving their lives.
Bleary man Stephen said they are all still in shock after a massive blaze ripped through the Aughan Park, Poyntzpass home last Thursday morning.
His three children Kaylagh (10), Lauren (9) and Sophie (8) and their mother Iona were saved by Mr O’Hare who woke up to the fire, which the NI Fire and Rescue Service described as ‘intense’ and brought everyone outside.
Stephen said: “All the children had on was their underwear as it was so warm.”
They are all pupils at St Mary’s Primary School in Banbridge and the school’s Parents Teachers Association put out an online appeal for help. Within hours they had offers of help from almost 24,000 people.
Donations have been flooding in, from cash, offers of accommodation and bags of clothes and furniture.
Stephen said: “I just don’t know where to start thanking everyone. The school has been amazing organising the donations. They have been a massive help.
“I want to thank all the local businesses, many of which wanted to remain anonymous, for their offers of help too.”
And he thanked John for saving his children’s lives. “He just got them up and out. I have been told that the fire service can’t believe anyone got out of that house alive.”
The truck driver said John’s sister Pamela Smolenski has created a crowdfunding page to help the family with a target of £2k and within less than a day the target has almost been reached.
Stephen said the amount of donations was overwhelming. “There are just bags and bags and bags of clothes. I can never been grateful enough to all the people and businesses who have offered to help.
“I just can’t get over it,” he said.
He said the children and their mum have been traumatised by what happened. “It’s just been a rollercoaster for them. Their emotions are all over the place. They have lost everything, clothes, furniture, ipads, photographs, lots of memories.”
On their Facebook page, St Mary’s PTA Banbridge said the family were ‘blessed to escape with their lives’.
“In the short few hours since our appeal we have been inundated with messages - both here and at school.
“We have been overwhelmed by generosity, from friends and strangers. We have witnessed first hand the solidarity and support for families in need, not only from our small close knit community but from the whole borough. ❤️
“This is truly amazing, and proves what we preach time and time again - that we all as people have more in common than divides us.
“We’ve had offers of accommodation, clothing and finance from church groups and schools from a number of denominations in the area.
“Our appeal has reached over 23,000 people who have expressed a desire to help in various ways.
“The response from the business community has been appreciated - most of whom wish to remain anonymous as they do not want any publicity or attention.”