Man tells of illegal vodka factory blast in Lincolnshire


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The Independent Online

A man who survived a blast at a factory where illegal vodka was being made has said he is still having treatment for his injuries almost a year later following an inquest into his colleagues' deaths today.

Lithuanian national Rytas Gecas, 25, of Peterborough, suffered extensive burns in the incident at the industrial unit on Broadfield Lane, Boston, Lincolnshire, on July 13 last year.

His five Lithuanian-born colleagues, Erlandas Duzinskas, 19, Vaidas Krupenkinas, 39, Laimutis Simkus, 32, Ovidijus Mejeris, 26, and Ricardus Gecas, 24, all died from the toxic fumes in the blast.

Maureen Taylor, coroner for Boston and Spalding, recorded a verdict of accidental death into the five deaths.

The cause of death was given as inhalation of fire fumes.

Lincolnshire Police are still investigating how the blaze started but the inquest at Spalding Magistrates' Court heard that the most likely cause was a cigarette, the spark from which may have caused toxic vapours which had built up in the unit to ignite.

Ian Woods, deputy divisional officer from Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service, told the hearing that smoking materials and debris were found in significant quantities near the seat of the fire.

Mr Gecas, who gave evidence through an interpreter, said the men regularly smoked while they worked.

Mr Woods said the heat in the unit would have increased by several degrees following the blast and that anyone inhaling the smoke and vapours would have had a "rapid demise" within minutes.

No smoke alarms were fitted in the unit.

The inquest heard thick black smoke was pouring out of the building when ambulance crews arrived at the scene.

Witnesses described seeing a man running out of the building with his hair and clothes on fire.

Mr Gecas, who had been working at the factory for just two weeks putting tops on the bottles, was treated at the scene for severe burns before being taken to hospital.

The five others were pronounced dead at the scene after being overcome by the smoke and fumes inside the building.

High levels of alcohol were found in the bloodstreams of three of the victims - Krupenkinas, Mejeris and Simkus.

Krupenkinas and Simkus each had 143mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood while Mejeris had 106mg.

The UK drink-drive limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

Recording her verdict after a short hearing this morning, Miss Taylor said: "Vapours arising from their illegal activities were easily flammable.

"But despite the dangers, they all smoked while working and did not consider the possible dangers although aware of them."

"I don't know how the fire started, whether it was from a cigarette, who smoked that cigarette, or where.

"The only certainty was that illegal activities were going on."

Speaking after the verdict today, Det Insp Lorraine Bradley, of Lincolnshire Police, said: "On the 13th of July last year five young men were killed and it has been a complex and difficult case trying to establish the circumstances leading up to their deaths.

"The industrial unit contained apparatus which was being used as a filtration plant for the production of illicit alcohol

"We believe this alcohol was being sold on as counterfeit vodka and bottling and labelling materials were also found at the scene.

"Over the subsequent months following the investigation a dedicated team of officers worked to try and identify whether any individual bore responsibility for what had happened.

"Extensive inquiries were made in Lincolnshire and in the Peterborough area where the victims were living.

"We worked closely with our colleagues in HM Customs and Trading Standards to examine the wider business of illicit alcohol production.

"In March this year the evidence gathered during the police investigation was reviewed in detail by a senior lawyer for the East Midlands Complex Case Unit who concluded that neither the cause of the explosion nor the identity of the person responsible could be established to a criminal standard.

"This means that Lincolnshire Police have been unable to charge anyone in connection with the five deaths.

"The events of last July were tragic and have shocked Boston town.

"It brought the production of illicit alcohol into focus and the community have worked with us supporting intelligence-led operations that disrupt the activities of those involved in this dangerous practice."