Hotel owners fined £80,000 for blaze

Pa,David Wilcock
Wednesday 04 May 2011 18:35

A company was fined £80,000 today for health and safety failures at a hotel that burned to the ground, killing three people.

O&C Holdsworth failed to ensure fire detectors and alarms were working at its Penhallow Hotel in Newquay, Cornwall, or make an adequate risk assessment before the fire in August 2007.

The blaze was later described by firefighters as the worst hotel fire in Britain for 40 years.

Monica Hughes, 86, her 43-year-old son Peter, and 80-year-old Joan Harper were unable to escape the blaze.

Mr Hughes, a teacher from Cheslyn Hay, Staffordshire, jumped from a third-floor window after trying in vain to save his mother.

Ms Harper, of Stoke-on-Trent, was also trapped, while her twin sister Marjorie Brys was one of more than 90 people who escaped the four-storey hotel.

Truro Crown Court heard today that the company had been warned about inadequate equipment more than a year before the fire.

But the firm placed the blame on the hotel manager and a health and safety specialist it said failed to pass the warning to directors.

John Hughes, Mrs Hughes' son and Peter's brother, was very critical of the fine.

"To say I am disappointed with it is an understatement, it is a travesty," he said after the hearing.

"It should have been at least £500,000 in my estimation. I was hoping that a large fine would have sent a message to the hotel industry at least."

Passing sentence, Judge Paul Darlow said the company was not responsible for the fire and it was impossible to say whether had the safety systems been up to scratch the lives would have been saved.

But he said there had been a "systemic failure" by the firm to make sure its chain of hotels in southern England had complied with regulations.

"This represents not just a one-off event but a systemic failure of this magnitude to illustrate the magnitude of risks present.

"These matters had been raised in July 2006 but had not been addressed by the time of the fire 13 months later."

An inquest into the deaths in 2009 returned open verdicts on all three victims, despite hearing evidence that arson was the most likely cause of the fire.

Prosecutor David Sapiecha said the hotel, which specialised in breaks for coach parties of elderly people had been inspected in July 2006 and several major failings were found. These included a lack of an "L2" alarm system, which features loud smoke and fire alarms in every room. Of the hotel's 59 bedrooms, 33 lacked self-closing doors required to slow or prevent the spread of fire. Some windows around the fire escape were also found to contain non-fire resistant glass.

"The L2 fire alarm system would have covered all the bedrooms," Mr Sapiecha said.

"It would have had sufficient volume to wake elderly people up so they would have been alerted to any fire. The alarm system in place was inadequate for employees and guests."

O&C, of Halifax, Yorkshire, which owned the hotel, admitted at Truro Crown Court in March to failing to ensure fire detectors and alarms were working at the hotel or making an adequate risk assessment before the blaze, which was Britain's most deadly hotel fire in 40 years.

Two directors of the company, Nicola Burfitt and John McMillan, both denied three charges relating to them personally, with the prosecution saying it was "not in the public interest" to pursue them.

Jonathan Waite QC, representing O&C, said warnings about the problems at the hotel had not been passed on, blaming the manager of the hotel, Andy Woollam and Martin Tricker, an independent health and safety inspector employed to assess all the company's hotels. He said while the directors knew about the problems with the alarm system - and had already begun looking at replacing it - they were unaware that it was an urgent issue.

"Had anyone at any stage informed the company of the importance of ensuring they complied with the regulations by 2006, that is something they would have undertaken," Mr Waite told the court.

"This is not a company that was carefree with fire safety, it is a responsible company."

He added that the company had had a spotless legal history since it was started in 1947 and that since the fire it had upgraded fire safety systems at its hotels in Eastbourne, Torquay and the Isle of Wight.

In a statement, O&C described the fire as a "tragedy" and said it had been left "devastated" by what happened but stressed it had not been found guilty of causing the fire or being responsible for any loss of life.

"Following the fire we immediately initiated a comprehensive review of our health and safety and fire safety procedures at our other hotels and have strengthened the company guidelines and working practices to ensure full compliance."

Cornwall Council and Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service, which brought the prosecution, welcomed the sentence, which included court costs of £62,000.

"Our decision to proceed with a prosecution, which was taken after a comprehensive investigation into the fire precautions at the hotel, reflects the seriousness of this case," a fire service spokesman said.

"We hope that today's sentence sends out a clear message to the hotel and leisure industry where sleeping accommodation is provided of the importance of adhering to fire safety legislation and ensuring the management of fire precautions is a high priority.

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