Coventry & Warwickshire

Atherstone fire deaths investigation 'was right thing'

Image caption The blaze was followed by a search for three missing firefighters' bodies

Two fire officers have been found not guilty of manslaughter over the deaths of four firefighters who died tackling a warehouse fire in 2007.

But Det Supt Ken Lawrence, of Warwickshire Police, who led a £4.6m investigation into the Atherstone-on-Stour blaze, said holding the inquiry had been the "right thing" to do.

"I promised that we would do everything we could to determine how the four men - Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid and John Averis - died and to find answers for their families and loved ones," he said.

"I believe that we have done that."

He told a news conference ahead of the verdicts, it had been a "very complex and protracted investigation" but some answers would never be known.

He said he believed the scale of the joint inquiry by Warwickshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive was justified by the fact that three men were charged and brought to trial.

It had been difficult investigating another emergency service but police had carried out that duty in a professional and "independent manner", he said.

"Where there is a loss of life, nobody is above investigation," he said.

He added the fire service itself was "not obstructive" but could have been more co-operative, he said.

"We needed to know what questions to ask."

He added there had been disputes with the Fire Brigades Union during the inquiry, but these had been overcome.

Image caption Mr Lawrence said the deaths of the four men were sometimes "overlooked"

The two main areas of investigation were into how the fire started at the vegetable packing plant in November 2007 and what caused the men's deaths.

"We must never forget that four people lost their lives. I think that's a fact that is not necessarily forgotten, but is overlooked.

"I believe those deaths were unnecessary," Mr Lawrence said.

He said police officers identified "some safety critical issues" which were of "great importance for firefighters nationally".

"As a result of sharing those findings I believe that there have been some changes to training for the use of breathing apparatus and fire behaviour," he said.

"I very much hope the fire service in Warwickshire and the fire service generally will take on board lessons learnt from this tragic event - and act on those."

'Huge regret'

Much of the cost of the three-year investigation was borne by a £3.45m Home Office grant.

Mr Lawrence said most of the costs came in the early months of the investigation when a forensic search of the warehouse remains was carried out.

Image caption About 160 firefighters tackled the warehouse blaze

A number of experts were also used, including people who explained fire service operations such as training and risk assessments.

Experts also created computer-regenerated images of the warehouse so investigators could better understand the building.

Some 160 firefighters who tackled the blaze were interviewed.

In total, about 800 interviews were carried out and many interpreters were used to speak to warehouse workers.

"The difficulty was that many employees were foreign migrant workers speaking eight or nine languages. They didn't know each other, or knew each other by nicknames," he said.

Mr Lawrence, a Warwickshire police officer for 35 years, said such difficulties made it harder to investigate the suspected arson behind the fire.

The officer said arson was the "probable cause" of the blaze and this had been concluded by eliminating alternatives, such as electrical faults.

Some suspects were arrested on suspicion of arson but later released.

Mr Lawrence said officers did not find enough evidence, such as forensic material or witness statements, to pursue an arson case against anybody.

"We did everything and did far more than would normally be expected.

"It's a huge regret that we haven't discovered if someone was responsible and who they were," he said.

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