When Tommy Murray, 33, was told by a nurse at a London casualty unit in the early hours of Sunday that he faced a long wait to be treated because doctors were battling to save a child rescued from a serious fire, he nodded and settled down for the delay.
It was only an hour later, when his older brother walked into the accident and emergency unit of the Homerton Hospital in east London, that he realised he was in the grip of a sickening coincidence - the child in question was his 10-year-old son, Christopher, and he had died on an adjacent corridor in the unit.
The terrible twist of fate that brought an unknowing father within feet of his dying son was revealed yesterday as police launched a murder inquiry into the suspected arson attack on a pub that claimed the lives of Christopher Knight and his five-year-old half-brother, Charlie Knight.
Two other children - Joe Knight, the three-year-old brother of Charlie, and their eight-year-old cousin, Vicki Chaundi - were in an "extremely serious and critical condition" last night at a specialist burns unit.
Forensic science teams continued to sift through the wreckage of the Prince of Wales pub in Nevill Road, Stoke Newington, north London, yesterday as a procession of well-wishers and friends took flowers to the burnt-out pub, a three-storey mock Tudor building.
The fire began at about 5am on Sunday when arsonists poured an unidentified liquid, possibly white spirit, through the letter box of the pub. The boys' parents, Kevin and Kate Knight, the tenant landlords of the pub, were on the ground floor with relatives celebrating a family birthday.
Their children, along with Vicki Chaundi and an 11-year-old girl understood to be Mr Knight's daughter, were sleeping in rooms at the top of a stairwell. The stairwell acted as a funnel for the fire and thick black smoke, turning the building into a deathtrap within moments.
Kevin Murray, 39, Tommy's brother, who has lived in the Stoke Newington area for 19 years, returned to the scene yesterday lunchtime to pay his respects. He said: "Whoever did this is evil - two innocent lives lost, two more extremely badly injured. It is going to affect so many people, it has destroyed a family.
"I got this phone call saying that Christopher had died but they couldn't contact his dad. I found out that Tommy had woken up with really bad head pains and was as the same hospital. I saw him sitting down and asked if he had heard about a bad fire. He said the triage nurse had told him and that was why he was waiting because a kid was badly hurt. I said 'Tommy, it's Christopher and he's died'. He just sat there in stunned silence. Then he broke down. His son was already in the mortuary."
Mr Murray said his brother was offered counselling at the hospital but had not been able to visit the scene or speak to Christopher's mother.
The couple's relationship failed nine years ago and Tommy had seen his son infrequently. But Kevin added: "That doesn't mean he isn't devastated to lose a child."
In the area near the pub, a mixture of gentrified Victorian terraces, run-down housing association properties and a rubbish-strewn estate, the smell of burning continued to hang in the air yesterday.
Witnesses described how Kate Knight stood screaming in the street as a friend - variously named as Ronnie Springer or Lance, a brother-in-law of Kate or Kevin - fought through the smoke to rescue at least two of the children, dropping them to safety from a first-floor window or balcony before jumping and badly injuring himself. Julie Watkins, 27, a neighbour who was woken by a loud bang, said: "I heard Kate standing in the street. She was holding her head and screaming, 'my babies, my babies'. Eventually someone had to lead her away. Then they bought out the guy who had rescued the kids, his face was covered with a sheet of white paper with holes for his eyes and mouth."
About 30 firefighters, who were called to tackle the fire and rescue the remaining children, were praised by police for the bravery they showed by entering the blazing building. Scotland Yard said police were still trying to identify the rescuer, who was critically ill with 50 per cent burns and multiple injuries at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
The employer of Mr Springer, a plumber known locally as Iceman, confirmed that he had attended the family reunion on Saturday. A friend, who did not want to be identified, said: "It is the sort of thing Iceman would do, he wouldn't think twice about jumping into a house fire."
Police said they were investigating whether the arson attack was deliberately aimed at the sleeping children. Detective Chief Superintendent Jon Shatford, who is leading the investigation, said: "It seems that the fire was focused on going up the stairwell to where the children were apparently asleep in their beds. We have launched a murder investigation. We have identified traces of an accelerant used within the living accommodation doorway which funnelled upstairs."
Last night Mr and Mrs Knight were at the bedside of their surviving son in the specialist burns unit of Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, along with Vicki's mother, Kim.
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