Uprising: 'My skin melted and I jumped from window in New Cross fire that also killed 4 of my friends and girlfriend'

SEARING hot smoke stung his eyes as 16-year-old Wayne Hayes wiped his sodden face – but what he thought was sweat was his own melting skin.

Moments later, the terrified teenager jumped from a second floor window to escape a raging fire that ripped through a terraced house in London’s New Cross. It killed 13 young black people – including Wayne’s girlfriend and four best friends.

The shocking story of the tragedy in January 1981, is told in the powerful documentary Uprising, by Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, which begins on BBC1 tonight.

The three-part series hears moving accounts from survivors of the fire, which broke out at teenager Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday party, and examines the aftermath of the deaths and the widespread unrest that led to the Brixton riots.

Against a backdrop of racial tension, with minority communities coming under attack from the far right group the National Front and subjected to a brutal stop and search campaign by the police, the New Cross fire was initially thought to be the result of an arson attack.

But Met detectives ­dismissed the idea and attempts to blame the party-goers led to anger in the community. Two inquests recorded open verdicts.

As well as suffering severe burns on a third of his body, Wayne sustained life-changing injuries after falling from the building, shattering his hip and breaking several bones in his leg. He had 140 skin grafts and has been classed as disabled ever since.

Still walking with a stick 40 years on, Wayne is haunted by memories of the fire and the moment he heard his girlfriend, 16-year-old Rosaline Henry, had perished along with four pals – Gerry Francis, 17, Steve Collins, 17, Owen Thompson, 16 and Glenton Powell,16.

“I had just come out of intensive care and I was still hooked up to lots of machines,” he tells The Sun.

“My first reaction was to rip everything out of my arms because I just wanted to die.

“I grew up as an only child and the friends that I lost in that fire weren't just friends, they were my family.

“When I lost them, I lost a big chunk of my life. Since then, I've been scared to make friends because I thought I was bad luck and people around me die. Going through something like that affects you, mentally, forever.”

Teeth knocked out by police and chased by 30 thugs

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, incendiary language and frequent marches by the National Front, calling for repatriation of black people, stirred racial tension throughout the UK.

The documentary also hears shocking stories of institutional racism within the police service, both from black PC George Rhoden and white officer Peter Bleksley.

As a teenager in South London, Wayne saw the worst of the racist abuse from both sides.

“I remember coming home from football at 14, dressed in a tracksuit with a ball under my arm,” he says.

“All of a sudden, a car screeched up behind me and I was slammed against the floor by three officers. I still have a gap in my mouth where my tooth was knocked out.”

At 16, Wayne and two friends were targeted by 30 racist thugs who chased them all the way from Elephant and Castle to New Cross.

“Three of us had came out of a club talking to some girls and we heard racial abuse and a barrage of stones and bricks came flying our way,” he says. “I feared for my life.”

Wayne also claims that arson attacks, where rags soaked in flammable liquids and posted through letterboxes, was a common tactic of violent racists at the time.

Panic as flames roar through front room

Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday party, to be held at the three-storey family townhouse at 439 New Cross Road, on January 17, 1981, was an exciting event for the South London teenagers.

At 11, Denise Gooding was one of the youngest at the party but was allowed to go because older brothers Andrew and David – who was dating Yvonne – were also there.

“I was mad excited,” she says. “I didn’t really know what to expect of the party, I just knew I was going to a party.”

Aspiring DJ Wayne and pals Steve and Gerry had a sound system and offered to provide the music.

Although the bash kicked off at 8.30pm, the older guests trickled in after midnight so the celebrations went on until the early hours of the morning.

With Yvonne’s mum Armza dishing out food and drink in the kitchen downstairs, the main party was in a first floor bedroom which was cleared of furniture.

At 5.30am, people were still dancing when Armza opened the door to the front room and was beaten back by flames. She screamed, ‘Fire, fire!’ up the stairs.

'All hell broke lose'

Upstairs, Wayne smelt burning which he put down to one of the amplifiers blowing.

But when he started to walk downstairs to get a drink, he saw thick smoke coming from the ground floor and ran back up to warn the others.

“In seconds, there was no electricity and everything was dark,” he says.

“All hell broke loose. People were screaming and shouting, trying to climb out a window and other people pulling them back.

“Heat was coming up from underneath and it was getting hotter. I remember sweating and wiping my forehead but the sweat was actually my skin peeling off my face. It felt like I had sand all over my face and the more I wiped, the more skin came off.”

Denise, who had been getting ready to leave, was also trapped upstairs.

“My brother Andrew was standing in the door of the room and I was on the staircase when I heard someone shout ‘fire’,” she tells The Sun.

“We were engulfed in smoke within seconds. My brother and I looked at each other and that was the last time I saw him.”

My brother and I looked at each other and that was the last time I saw him.

Tragically Andrew, 14, was one of the 13 young people- between the ages of 14 and 22 – who perished in the flames. Denise escaped with the help of an unknown party-goer.

“I was trying to get out of the window when suddenly I was being lifted,” she says.

“I was coming down a drainpipe with someone and then halfway down, the last thing I remember is them saying ‘you’re on your own now’.

“I fell on my back. When I came to, there was a person either side of me and one of them was saying ‘help me’ but all I could think about was ‘where are my brothers?’ It was horrible.”

Wayne also managed to get out of a window but as he climbed down the drainpipe, it ripped away from the wall and he fell through the roof of an outside toilet, smashing his hip into over 100 pieces and breaking his thigh, shin and foot.

Paul Ruddock, 22, ran inside in an attempt to save sister Yvonne. Both survived the blaze but died in hospital afterwards.

Paul’s wife Suzanne, who was five months pregnant, recalled the tragic scenes at Greenwich hospital, saying: “I remember kids lying on stretchers, burnt pink. The smell of burning flesh will go with me to my grave.”

Arson rumours and finger-pointing

As the community reeled from the tragedy, reports that a white man had been seen throwing something into the house led to speculation about a racist arson attack.

But with little evidence to back that up, the police dismissed the theory and turned their attention to the party-goers.

The documentary claims underage children were routinely questioned for hours, without their parents, and that officers coerced kids into saying they’d witnessed a fight between two of the boys at the party.

Denise, at 11, was with her dad when she was quizzed but still found the experience ‘traumatic’.

“I was there for hours and all they were talking about was this fight, which never happened,” she says.

“No matter what I said, they were telling me, ‘No, you saw a fight’ and by the end of it, I was so worn out and desperate to leave I said, ‘yes, there was a fight.’ We were victims and they were treating us like we were guilty.

“It was my first experience with the police and it was traumatic.”

The growing anger in the community was compounded by the fact the government made no mention of the tragedy, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher failed to reach out to grieving families and the media gave minimal coverage to the event.

“I don’t believe it was a racist attack but the way it was handled was blatant racism,” says Wayne.

“They had children in the police station with no parents, questioning them for hours, calling them the N-word, then accusing children of starting the fire.

“They had no regard for their age, or the grief that they were going through after losing their friends.”

The grieving families were bombarded with hate mail with one letter, addressed to Denise’s mum, saying ‘what a great day last Sunday was, when all those n*****s went up in smoke' and threatening to bomb Andrew’s funeral.

“It's shocking that people have so much hate over the colour of someone’s skin,” says Denise.

“For my mother, it was devastating, like losing a son again because each time someone says something like that, it devalues their life. It's horrible.”

Victims voices lost in the racism row

Growing anger and mistrust of the police led to a swell of activism, including the Black People’s Day of Action – a peaceful march which descended into scuffles when police blocked them from crossing Blackfriars Bridge.

Brutal stop and search tactics also stoked resentment and in April 1981, the unrest culminated in the Brixton Riots, where protestors surrounded police vehicles and threw bricks before rampaging through the streets.

Almost 300 police were injured over two days of skirmishes that saw them bombarded with petrol bombs but Wayne says survivors and families were forgotten in the crossfire.

“We were never listened to,” he says. “We were pushed to one side because this became a battle between the police and the activists who were supposed to be fighting our corner.

“Nobody offered us counselling or even bothered to ask 'Are you guys all right?" Nobody cared. For 40 years, we've battled with this amongst ourselves.”

Flashbacks and panic attacks

The survivors of the fire have battled mental scars as well as physical. Like many Wayne, whose shattered leg has never fully healed and whose arms are still badly scarred, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I see myself in the mirror and I've got scars all over to prove I was there but I'm fortunate,” says Wayne.

“The physical pain doesn't register any more but the mental pain has been really hard.

“Before my wife passed away five years ago she said, ‘there's always been a bit of you that I can't have’ because a bit of me belonged to that fire.

“Because of the lack of empathy, we never got the help we needed.”

Denise, who had burns on her forehead, still suffers back pain caused by the fall and has flashbacks.

“I had counselling years later but if I’m on a train that goes through a tunnel, when it goes dark, I panic, I hear footsteps and smell smoke,” she says.

“If I go anywhere I'm looking for the exit. I don't like crowded places. Even though I don't have the physical scars, mentally I'm still living with the New Cross fire.”

The cause of the fire has never been discovered and the survivors are hoping the documentary will prompt a fresh look into what happened on that tragic night.

“I’m hoping we'll finally get answers because, 40 years later, we're still suffering,” says Denise. “We're just in limbo. There's no closure.”

 Uprising is on BBC1 on July 20, 21 and 22 at 9pm.

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