Police accept New Cross fire may have been arson

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The Independent Online

At about 5.50am on 18 January 1981, as an all-night party was drawing to a close, a flame, probably from a match or a lighter, was held against the back of an armchair. The blaze in the foam-filled chair, next to a window on the ground floor of a two-storey house in New Cross Road, Deptford, south-east London, quickly engulfed the building. Fourteen black teenagers died, trapped in the fire. Others scrambled out or jumped from upper floors.

At about 5.50am on 18 January 1981, as an all-night party was drawing to a close, a flame, probably from a match or a lighter, was held against the back of an armchair. The blaze in the foam-filled chair, next to a window on the ground floor of a two-storey house in New Cross Road, Deptford, south-east London, quickly engulfed the building. Fourteen black teenagers died, trapped in the fire. Others scrambled out or jumped from upper floors.

More than 20 years after the notorious tragedy, a fresh police inquiry has concluded the fire was probably arson. Two suspects have been identified from statements given by witnesses at the birthday party, although the elderly couple named have told police they were not at the celebration.

Now a second inquest could be held or a public inquiry set up. Relatives of the dead, who want a new inquest, were briefed about the findings on Sunday. Selena Lynch, the coroner for south London, began reviewing the new material yesterday and will make a recommendation to the Attorney General and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who will take the final decision.

The New Cross fire, originally thought to have been started by racists throwing a petrol bomb, was a defining moment in British race relations, prompting a protest march on central London by up to 20,000 people, and acting as a catalyst for the Brixton riots a month later.

But police, guided by the latest computer and forensic techniques to pinpoint the source of the fire, and combined with interviews with about 70 people who attended the party, have ruled out a racist attack.

Instead the Metropolitan Police's race and violent crime task force believe a naked flame, not a cigarette, was placed next to an armchair to start the fire. In the opinion of the forensic scientists, "the fire was most probably started deliberately".

Police have interviewed 60 to 80 of the 200 people who visited the birthday party over the course of the night. Two black people, who were then in their 50s, were named by several witnesses as possible suspects, but they told detectives they were not at the house.

If a public inquiry is ordered by the Home Secretary the suspects would be forced to attend and give evidence under oath.

The first inquest, which was held only three months after the fire, recorded an open verdict. Derek Bines, the coroner's officer who dealt with the original inquest and is helping advise on the new review, said yesterday: "One of the questions is whether a new inquest would serve any purpose, whether there is sufficient new evidence to come to a different conclusion. The coroner also has to consider whether it would be better to have a public inquiry, although it would be up to the Home Secretary to make the final decision."

The families of the 14 who died said they felt "great relief" after investigating detectives announced they believed there was "grounds to support" a second inquest. George Francis, chairman of the New Cross fire parents' committee, said: "It is a great relief for us because it has been going on for two decades and the answer we have now means there is a new light at the end of the tunnel for us."

Mr Francis, 72, and his wife Velvetina, 75, from south-east London, lost their 17-year-old son Gerry, who was a DJ at the party. "We feel a little bit happier than we did 20 years ago," Mr Francis added. "We and the committee will never stop. We want an answer about why our children died that night."

Detective Chief Superintendent Mike Parkes, who is leading the investigation, said: "The science of rebuilding how a fire starts has advanced to such a stage that we are now able to say that the fire ... started in the armchair underneath the window, and probably at the back of the chair."

The police investigation was reopened in November 1999 after witnesses came forward with new evidence. Since then, officers have travelled to the United States, Jamaica and Northern Ireland to re-interview more than 70 people. In January, police put up a reward of £50,000 for information.

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