23 years on, new inquest opens into black youths killed in fire

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A long-awaited second inquest into one of the most controversial chapters in British race relations began yesterday as the families of 13 black youngsters killed in a fire at a house party 23 years ago gathered at the Inner London Crown Court in the hope of finally discovering what happened that night.

A long-awaited second inquest into one of the most controversial chapters in British race relations began yesterday as the families of 13 black youngsters killed in a fire at a house party 23 years ago gathered at the Inner London Crown Court in the hope of finally discovering what happened that night.

In the early hours of 18 January 1981, flames engulfed the birthday celebrations in New Cross, trapping many of the guests inside and forcing others to jump from upstairs windows. The fire, initially believed to have been caused by a racial attack, prompted 20,000 people to take part in a protest and was a catalyst for the Brixton riots a few months later.

Survivors and relatives have waited almost a quarter of a century for the chance of a second inquest. The first, held shortly after the deaths, returned open verdicts, angering many. Yesterday, friends and relatives stood side by side as they observed a minute's silence before the opening of the second hearing.

The victims were aged from 14 to 25. Yvonne Ruddock, who was celebrating her 16th birthday died, as did her 22-year-old brother Paul. Two years later the fire claimed another life when one of the 27 survivors, Anthony Berbeck, killed himself.

Many continue to suffer the consequences, explained Desmond Brown, who survived by jumping from a fourth-floor window but lost his brother Humphrey, 18, and his 16-year-old best friend Patrick Cummings. "It still haunts me. I remember every minute of it and my mother has not been the same since. I now have a son of 16, exactly the same age as I was than. We were all so young," he said yesterday, adding: "I just hope they sort out exactly what happened and we find out some honest truth."

In contrast to the early eighties, when relations between sections of the black community and police were tense, Mr Brown praised the later investigation and application for a new inquest: "The police have done a very good job in bringing it so far."

The first inquest, lasting three weeks, was held before the police investigation had been completed. The families, convinced the blaze had been started deliberately, continued to press for another inquiry but a High Court application for a second inquest the following year failed. In August 1985 the Director of Public Prosecutions announced the file on the deaths was being closed, as there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution.

In 1997 the Metropolitan Police reopened the investigation, later passing the matter on to the Race and Violent Crimes task force which uncovered fresh evidence using new forensic science techniques. The findings suggested the fire may have been started deliberately, although it was unlikely to have come from a petrol bomb thrown from outside as some had suggested.

In 2002, the Met successfully applied to the High Court for another inquest on the grounds of the fresh evidence.

Outlining the case history, Gerald Butler QC, the retired judge who is presiding over the new inquest as deputy coroner, said yesterday: "They, then are the bald facts, but in themselves they do not begin to explain the terrible tragedy of these deaths or to demonstrate the grief and despair of the families. Nor do they show what is a remarkable story of persistence and determination over the years on the part of many in order to achieve this new inquest."

Pointing out that the passage of time made his task difficult, Mr Butler vowed the inquiry, expected to last up to six months, would be thorough. He added: "I cannot promise that I will find the answers. I can only promise that I will do my very best to do so."

Yesterday, George Francis, 74, whose 17-year-old son Gerry was the DJ that night, explained that while he would not say he was confident the whole truth would emerge, he remained optimistic.

"Whilst I do not say that a new inquest will extinguish the losses we have suffered, clearly they will always remain with us, a new inquest will lighten the load which we bear and help us in putting our children to rest," he said.

Patrick Allen, the solicitor representing the majority of the families, insisted his clients remained convinced the fire was started deliberately. He added: "Whether that amounts to murder or manslaughter will depend on the evidence."

Commander Steve Allen, of the Met's Race and Violent Crime Task Force, said it remained to be seen whether any prosecutions would resultand there were still four main theories as to how the fire started. "There may be new lines of inquiry that open up to us through the course of the inquest," he said. "If someone you loved died in the fire, 23 years passes in the blink of an eye. We have a duty to pursue the truth while there are outstanding lines of inquiry," he added.

Path to inquest

By Genevieve Roberts

19 January 1981: The fire is seen at 5.50am on the ground floor of 439 New Cross Road, where 200 people are celebrating the birthday of Yvonne Ruddock, 16, and another girl. Fire services arrive at 5.59am. Thirteen people die, including Yvonne and her brother, Paul; 27 are injured. Cause of the fire ismystery.

March 1981: 10,000 march on Downing Streetamid speculation that racists started the fire and anger atpolice for not conducting a thorough inquiry.

April 1981: The fire, and the police's treatment of it, is said to be one reason for the Brixton riots.

21 April 1981: First inquest starts. Open verdict is returned.

1983: Anthony Berbeck, who was at the party, dies in fall from block of flats, the loss of so many friends having become intolerable.

August 1985: Criminal investigation ends and file on deaths is closed due to "insufficient evidence".

1997: The Metropolitan Police's racial and violent crime task force reopens inquiry, hoping that new scientific techniques will help to solve the case. Decision follows campaign by the victims' families andthe local MP, Joan Ruddock.

January 2001: Police offer £50,000 reward. At a memorial service, the Right Rev Tom Butler says: "If you haven't done so, tell the story of what you know."

May 2001: Police recommend a new inquest. Det Ch Supt Mike Parkes says: "The science of rebuilding how a fire starts has advanced to such a stage that we are now able to say that the fire started in the armchair underneath the window."

2 February 2004: New inquest starts.