Two cleared over firefighter deaths


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The Independent Online

A chief fire officer has called for an investigation into why three long-serving firefighters were prosecuted following the deaths of four of their colleagues in a warehouse blaze.

Graeme Smith, the head of Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, claimed Adrian Ashley, Paul Simmons and Timothy Woodward had been "treated like common criminals" in the wake of the tragedy at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007.

Jurors at Stafford Crown Court cleared Mr Ashley, 45, and 51-year-old Mr Woodward of gross negligence manslaughter after hearing six weeks of evidence about the deaths of Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, John Averis and Ian Reid.

A third defendant, 50-year-old Watch Manager Paul Simmons, was acquitted of manslaughter on the directions of the judge part-way through the trial.

Critics of the prosecution claim it placed too much reliance on the views of one expert witness, who compared the defendants to First World War generals sending lower ranks into a high-risk area.

It also emerged during the court proceedings that Watch Manager Ashley, Station Manager Woodward, and Mr Simmons were held in police cells overnight during questioning and had their belts and shoelaces seized.

Speaking after the verdicts, Chief Fire Officer Smith said: "It is crystal clear that these cases should never have been brought to court.

"The police investigation into this fire took a wrong turn early on.

"The police treated decent fire officers like common criminals and the arsonist who started this fire has got away with it.

"It has taken almost five years and five million pounds of public money to construct a case against these three men and when it was presented in court it simply fell apart.

"The Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service and the Chief Fire Officers Association will now be writing to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into how and why these legal proceedings were allowed to go forward."

Mr Smith added: "Today, I feel a sense of relief for these three incident commanders, but I also feel a deep sense of sorrow and remembrance for the four brave firefighters who died at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007 and my thoughts are with their families."

Meanwhile, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) also hit out at police and prosecutors, describing the "relentless" pursuit of the three firefighters as absurd.

The union said the entire fire service sympathised with those who had lost family members, friends and colleagues, and that the FBU would continue to support the loved ones of those who died.

FBU assistant general secretary Andy Dark said: "This was the first time firefighters at an incident were accused of the manslaughter of their colleagues.

"This prosecution cast a shadow across the whole fire service and caused anger and concern.

"We are relieved at the not guilty verdicts but firefighters are furious at the police and prosecutors.

"The criminals who started the fire are still free, but those who tried to put the fire out were arrested, charged and brought to trial."

Mr Dark added: "Police and prosecutors took the worst tragedy in the fire service for over forty years and turned it into a farce."

Mr Dark said the families of those who died would be "saddened" that their loved ones had still not received any justice at all.

Mr Dark told reporters: "We are very disappointed by the fact the case was brought in the first place.

"We believe that the Crown's case, which was essentially that firefighters should stand aside and watch buildings burn, must be challenged by the Secretary of State, if not the Prime Minister himself.

"The evidence brought by the Crown's case was a dreadful position for the public and for firefighters everywhere."

Mr Simmons, Mr Ashley and Mr Woodward were applauded as they emerged from the court by campaigners who fought for the charges against them to be dropped.

Issuing a post-verdict statement on behalf of the defendants, Station Manager Woodward said: "It is our sincere wish that over the course of this trial, that the families of Ian, John, Ashley, and Darren have had many of their questions answered, at least we hope, to enable them to begin to move forward with the rest of their lives.

"We would also like to thank everyone for the fantastic support over the last six weeks, and over the last two-and-a-half years since our arrests, and over the last four-and-a-half years since the tragic events of November 2007.

"This support from our friends in Warwickshire, the fire service community and the general public both nationally and internationally, has been truly humbling.

"You have our deepest gratitude."

The prosecution alleged that the firefighters who lost their lives had been sent into an obviously dangerous situation for no good reason.

The trial heard that the four-man team, all wearing breathing apparatus, died after being ordered into the smoke-filled vegetable packing plant, which had already been evacuated.

Opening the Crown's case against Mr Woodward, Mr Ashley and Mr Simmons, prosecutor Richard Matthews QC told jurors: "This is not a case about what some people see as the irritating trivialities of health and safety red tape.

"This is not about stopping the heroic members of our emergency services from risking their lives, and the lives of those who may be under their command, to save others.

"Rather, it's only about the needless loss of four lives, four individuals, lost as a result of having been sent into a situation where no-one was in peril."

Mr Simmons, from Hampton Magna, Warwickshire, Mr Ashley, from Nuneaton, and Mr Woodward, from Leamington Spa, each denied four separate counts of manslaughter.

Following today's acquittals, the President of the Chief Fire Officers Association, Lee Howell, described the not guilty verdicts as being the right decision and "the best possible outcome for our profession as a whole".

Mr Howell said: "We lost four brave firefighters almost five years ago in one tragic incident and our thoughts remain with the families and friends of our fallen colleagues.

"We remain keen to understand the rationale behind the decision to take this prosecution and we question the length of time it took to come to trial."

Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence, who led the joint inquiry involving Warwickshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive, said: "The jury has reached its verdict after hearing the evidence presented in court and we have to accept that.

"I am, however, personally disappointed with the verdict that has been reached.

"As a police force it is our job to investigate crime, and there is no more serious crime than causing the death of another person.

"Police officers work with other emergency services on a daily basis as we jointly protect the people of Warwickshire.

"I trust that our professional working relationship with colleagues from Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service will continue and that everyone understands the responsibility we have to investigate serious matters, particularly where lives are lost."

Warwickshire County Council has pleaded guilty to a number of health and safety breaches in relation to the fire and will be sentenced on a date to be fixed.