Three arrested over firefighter blaze deaths

Three fire managers have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter following the deaths of four colleagues who were sent into a burning warehouse to search for people trapped inside.

In an unprecedented move the men, from Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, were questioned on suspicion of causing death by gross negligence and breaching health and safety laws.

Ian Reid, 44, Ashley Stephens, 20, Darren Yates-Badley, 24, and John Averis, 27 died after being sent into Europe’s largest vegetable-packing warehouse at Atherstone-on-Stour, near Stratford-upon-Avon, shortly before the roof collapsed on 2 November 2007. The fire could be seen for miles and was not brought under control until the following day.

Following the incident, which represents the worst loss of life for an English fire service since the Blitz, an investigation was launched by Warwickshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive. It has so far cost £4.1 million, with over 2,500 statements collected.

The men arrested today are current Fire Brigade Union members and fire service managers, working on the incident command process. Police said the 43-year-old from Nuneaton, 49-year-old from Leamington and 48-year-old from Warwick attended a station for questioning on written request. The identities of the men are understood to be known to the families of the victims.

An FBU spokesman, who did not wish to be named, commented today on the arrests: “I am not aware of any precedent. The people I have spoken to aren’t aware of this happening before.”

However, FBU general secretary, Matt Wrack, expressed concern last month that not all top managers in the service had yet been interviewed. He said: “Evidence from our own on-going investigation suggests there may be systemic failings. Any systemic failings within Warwickshire fire service, if they are established, would be the responsibility of the fire authority.”

The investigation – the most extensive in the history of Warwickshire Police – is still not expected to conclude for several months. The first indication of blame came two years ago when the fire service were issued with an ‘improvement notice’ by the Health and Safety Executive.

In January 2008, Alan Craddock, head of operations for HSE in the Midlands , said the executive had “formed the opinion” that arrangements at the fire service “do not comply with the statutory duties to provide its firefighters with all the information they should have to assist them in making the appropriate decisions when attending a fire”.

The notice was later stayed with an employment tribunal, pending appeal.

In May 2009 three men and one woman were arrested by Warwickshire Police on suspicion of arson, but the four were bailed and later discharged. At least some of the four were current or former employees at the warehouse, owned by Wealmoor Ltd, at the time of the blaze.

It is still unknown how the fire started, but the building was not fitted with sprinklers and lacked fire-resistant roofing materials. Wealmoor have since rebuilt the warehouse on the same site with improved safety features.

A HSE spokeswoman said today: “Two inspectors are working full-time with Warwickshire Police on this very complex case and HSE is participating fully in the investigation. Health and safety and fire safety offences will be discussed in the police interviews.”