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
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The Independent Online

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."