Running has brought comfort to Carla Shears for over a decade. What started as a way of supporting a friend’s fundraising became a way to try and navigate the unexpected loss of her firefighter husband, Jim.
On Tuesday 6 April 2010, Hampshire firefighters were called to a fire in Shirley Towers, a tower block in Southampton. James ‘Jim’ Shears, 35, and Alan Bannon, 38, were killed while trying to tackle the blaze. Their deaths would go on to shape national fire safety rules and regulations, making Shirley Towers a household name and forever changing the lives of their families.
For Carla, that time remains a blur.
“Everything was just crazy, and I don’t really remember a huge amount of it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until Alan’s funeral that one of the other wives asked if I had been running recently and I said no, I hadn’t thought about it at all. She suggested maybe I should try it again, to see if it would help.”
Carla had completed her first half marathon with a friend two weeks before Jim died. Knowing how much she loved being outdoors in the fresh air and in need of an outlet for her grief, she decided to lace up her trainers and head outside once more.
The impact was immediate and, she says, some of the pain of her loss lifted for the first time: “Along with my friends and family, running saved me and saved my sanity. It became my coping mechanism when everything around me felt like it was falling apart.”
The Fire Fighters Charity offered support to both families and the summer after the fire, Carla took her two sons, Frankie and Ruben, to Harcombe House.
“The boys were four and five at the time their dad died,” says Carla. “It’s difficult to remember that first visit because everything was still such a whirlwind, but I do remember them being happy. And that helped a lot.”
Harcombe House became a sanctuary for the family, offering peace and serenity over the years that followed.
The first anniversary of the fire fell on the Easter holidays and Carla, not wanting to be at home, was again offered a break at Harcombe House by the Charity’s Welfare team. Since then, the family has returned to Devon nearly every year, booking themselves a holiday stay at Harcombe House each time.
“I just love it there. I feel so at peace,” says Carla. “It’s just perfect for getting away from it all. I always connect it with a place of tranquillity. Plus it’s nice to be able to give something back to the Charity that showed such kindness to us, by fundraising for them every year and holidaying at Harcombe.”
As well as her running, fundraising for the Charity has become an important part of Carla’s healing. The autumn after the fire, she organised for a large group of people – including several members of Jim’s watch – to take part in the New Forest Half Marathon.
“You get a bit of a bee in your bonnet about wanting to do something and make it as big as possible,” she explains. “So that first year there were 24 of us running for Team Jim, all raising funds for The Fire Fighters Charity. Three of his Red Watch did it in full kit complete with BA set. It was a great day and we raised a lot of money. So that was it, I knew it had to become an annual thing.”
Each year, come rain or shine, Team Jim takes on the same race, always with a few different faces and always with Jim’s name on their shirts: “It’s very emotional, seeing his name everywhere. They’re so brilliant at the event, they announce us over the tanoy as we come over the finish line and people come up to us to ask about Jim. The first year it was too hard for me to speak, so friends had to answer for me, but now I can talk about it. I like talking about him.”
Jim and Carla met while at University together in Reading in 1995. Sharing a hall of residence in the first year, they became a couple during their second year when Carla was 19 and Jim was 21. Despite doing a biochemistry degree, Jim would tell anyone he met about his dream to become a firefighter. “He just always wanted to do it, because he loved helping people,” says Carla. “After uni, he got a job in a lab, but didn’t like it and decided to pursue his dream. After a couple of failed attempts to get into Dorset he saw Hampshire was recruiting, so he swatted up so much. When they offered him a job he was over the moon and we were all so proud of him.
“Not many things gave me comfort in the early days, but knowing he died doing something he loved so much was a comfort. He died doing something he had always wanted to do. He loved the lads and his whole fire family. But he never brought his work home with him. With us he was Jim the dad, who loved judo, spending time with his kids and being together as a family. He made the most of his shift pattern to be a really hands-on dad. He did as many of the school runs as me and knew all our sons’ friends and their parents. He got involved with the school, going along as a parent helper on school trips and giving talks on fire safety. He doted on his brothers’ children as well as our own.”
In the couple of years after Jim’s death, Carla found it especially difficult waiting for the inquiry into the fire to shine some light on what happened: “When it was over, it was a real turning point for me. After the inquest was finished, as horrific as that night was, I could piece together what happened, so was able to process it and then move forwards with my life. And during that time, running saved me.”
Carla likes to think Jim would be ‘gobsmacked’ at how much fundraising she has done in his name, raising tens of thousands of pounds at events over the last decade, including completing the London Marathon.
“I hope he is proud of me,” she says. “I like to think he is.”
If you can afford to donate to the Charity, we’d really appreciate it. And so would the people who rely on us.