Fresh inquiry into New Cross fire set to blame adults at house party

New evidence emerges from police interviews of survivors of blaze that killed 13 in 1981

A new investigation into the blaze that killed 13 young black people at a London party 23 years ago suggests that a group of adults inside the house was to blame.

The New Cross fire is still regarded by many as the greatest tragedy to affect Britain's black community. It led to 20,000 people taking part in a mass protest, and is seen as a catalyst for the notorious Brixton riots in April of the same year, 1981.

Among the victims was 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock, who had been celebrating her birthday with around 50 guests when the blaze broke out in the early hours of Sunday, 19 January. A total of 27 people were injured as they tried to jump from windows or down drainpipes of the two-storey house at 439 New Cross Road, London.

Yvonne's brother Paul, aged 22, also perished. Another guest, Anthony Berbeck became the 14th victim two years later. The loss of so many of his friends became intolerable for him and he died after falling from a block of flats.

This week, a new inquest will be opened into all 14 deaths following an extensive forensic reinvestigation by police which includes an analysis of the movement of people at the house party. The exact cause of the fire has never been determined and the original inquest returned an open verdict, much to the dismay of the families of the victims.

Several theories on the cause of the fire have emerged over the years. Police initially said the blaze had been started by a firebomb that had been thrown through a ground-floor window. Then they questioned eight black youths who subsequently claimed they had been forced to make false statements.

This led to accusations that the police had not done enough to solve the mystery of the fire. Feelings of anger in the black community were compounded by the fact that neither the Queen nor the government of the day, under Margaret Thatcher, offered formal condolences to the families of the New Cross fire victims.

After huge public pressure, the Metropolitan police wrote to the Attorney General in 2001, asking him to reopen the investigation.

The new police inquiry, involving fresh interviews with witnesses, has now formally established that the blaze started when a naked flame was applied to a foam-filled armchair in the living-room.

The Independent on Sunday has also learned that much of the blame will be directed at a group of adults who were at the party that night. This new evidence is expected to emerge at the inquest, which will last three months. So harrowing are the details that the families of the victims will be offered counselling after the hearing at the Inner London Crown Court.

The parents of the victims have fought tirelessly to discover the truth about why their children died.

George Francis lost his 17-year-old son Gerry in the fire and helped to form the New Cross Fire Families Committee, of which he is chairman.

"With all the parents suffering, we want an answer," said Mr Francis, aged 75.

"We know it [the fire] was not an accident. We are old people and we want to know the truth before we die."

The last memory Mr Francis has of his son, who was the DJ at the party, was kissing him goodbye on the Saturday night. The next morning he received a telephone call telling him Gerry was dead.

"He came in, got dressed, and kissed his mother and kissed me and said, 'I'll see you in the morning,'" said Mr Francis, a former British Rail worker and photographer who lives in Sydenham, south London.

"The phone rang the next morning. The person said 'There was a fire at the party ... Gerry did not make it.' My wife started screaming. He was the baby of the family. I will always remember him as I saw him the night of the party. I was told not to go and identify the body and I'm glad I did not."

Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, has worked closely with the families and was responsible for securing a second police inquiry. Ms Ruddock said she hoped people who had remained silent for years would finally reveal the truth about what happened, and has suggested there should be immunity for witnesses.

"There were no condolences from the government, there were no condolences from the palace," said Ms Ruddock

"They [the victims' families] felt they were black people treated as second-class citizens. The investigation and the inquiry was bungled. They felt as if no one cared about their loss.

"I hope the people inside the house will be called to give evidence."

News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
Extras
indybest
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor