Three firefighters still missing after fatal blaze at warehouse

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Search-and-rescue teams were continuing their search last night for three firefighters, missing presumed dead after a blaze in a vegetable-packing warehouse that killed one of their colleagues.

The search took place as questions arose about the use of cheap migrant labour at the plant in Atherstone on Stour, Warwickshire, which was devastated in the fire on Friday night.

Allegations were made at the weekend that some of the workers at the plant had to sleep on the site, as they could not afford or did not have time to return to their lodgings at the end of their shifts, and that the four firefighters had gone into the burning building in search of them.

The fire caused the worst loss of life for Britain's fire services since 1972, when seven firefighters died in a blaze in Glasgow.

Senior fire officers said yesterday that the search for the missing men could take at least 36 hours as other parts of the building were also close to collapse and may need to be shored up. The teams doing the searching are specially trained in going through rubble. Many of them have helped abroad when build-ings have collapsed during earthquakes.

It is possible that other casualties will be discovered during the search.

More than 80 firefighters from four brigades battled the blaze through Friday night and into Saturday. It was Saturday night before anyone could enter the building again.

The firefighter known tohave died was Ian Reid, a tax inspector. He had been dragged from the building by colleagues after the roof collapsed and attempts were made to resuscitate him but he was declared dead at Warwick Hospital.

Police said the blaze was being treated as suspicious, but it later emerged that this simply meant the cause was not yet known. An immediate focus of the inquiry will be the building's sprinkler system – or absence of one – and the threat of fire posed by methane gas coming from rotting fruit and vegetables.

The warehouse, one of Britain's biggest, is owned by Wealmoor Atherstone Ltd, a vegetable packing and distribution firm that employs 300 people at the site. It previously belonged to a firm called Bomfords, which went into administration earlier this year.

It was reported yesterday that a sprinkler system which had been partially fitted by Bomfords was abandoned by the newowners when they took over the building.

Bomfords has been fiercely criticised over its labour practices at the plant and the company was accused of paying very low wages to migrant workers from countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia and Bangladesh. Supermarkets such as Tesco took produce from the plant ranging from peas and beans to asparagus.

The three firefighters who are missing, presumed dead, have been identified as Ashley Stephens, 21, John Averis, 27, from Stratford-upon-Avon, and Darren Yates-Bradley, 24, from Alcester.

All four of the casualties were retained, or volunteer part-time firemen.

Two firefighters have been killed on operations in Britain in each of the past three years, but the weekend's casualties will take the 2007 toll to five. In June, Paul Mallaghan, 46, of Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, was killed when he was hit by a vehicle as he tackled a car fire on the A1M near Stevenage.

"This is the worst loss the fire service has faced in decades and our service is traumatised ," said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. "Deaths in the line of duty touch everyone who works in the fire service. Deaths within the fire service family are felt very deeply by everyone in the service, across the world."