Inflatable artwork deaths an accident, inquest rules

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Two women who were killed when an inflatable artwork broke free and flipped into the air suffered accidental deaths, an inquest jury ruled today.

Elizabeth Collings, 68, and Claire Furmedge, 38, suffered fatal injuries in the horrific accident on a hot Sunday afternoon in July 2006 in Chester-le-Street's Riverside Park, County Durham.

Following an inquest in Chester-le-Street, North Durham coroner Andrew Tweddle instructed the jury that the only verdict they could reach was one of accidental death.

The Dreamspace inflatable was the work of artist Maurice Agis, 77, who died in October.

He faced manslaughter charges but, following a month-long trial at Newcastle Crown Court, a jury failed to reach a verdict.

He was fined £10,000 after admitting failure to ensure the safety of the public.

Chester-le-Street Council, since replaced by Durham County Council, admitted health and safety breaches and was fined £20,000 for its role in staging the colourful exhibition.

The artwork took off when a gust of wind got underneath its plastic panels and sent it rearing into the air and then across the park with 20 people inside.

The piece - about half the size of a football pitch - snagged on a CCTV camera pole, preventing it from tumbling into the River Wear.

Dramatic footage was caught by a passer-by on a mobile phone camera.

Mr Tweddle ordered the council and Brouhaha International, the Liverpool-based firm run by the artist's son, Giles, which organised the structure's tour around Britain, to demonstrate by the end of the month that they had both learned lessons from the tragedy.

The inquest heard from Health and Safety Executive engineer Anthony Hoyland who said the structure needed 108 anchor points or pegs. After the tragedy, police recovered just 22.

There was also confusion about the role of the council's Safety Advisory Group, with some officials believing it had the final say on events, while others thought it could only give an opinion, the inquest was told.

Outside the hearing, Mrs Collings' daughter, Susan Campbell, said: "We are relieved that, nearly four years since the death of our loved ones, the inquest process has provided us with the answers we awaited.

"The inquest has demonstrated clear failures on the part of Maurice Agis, Chester-le-Street District Council, and Brouhaha International.

"The coroner has agreed to seek details of lessons learned by Chester-le-Street District Council and Brouhaha and we hope that these lessons prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

"We would like to thank all those who have supported us during the last four years and in particular those people who assisted our loved ones on the day of the tragedy."

Rosie Wright, then aged three, survived despite suffering multiple injuries, thanks to the skills of off-duty anaesthetist Peter Evans who happened to be passing and stabilised her before she was flown to hospital in an air ambulance.