'An online buy left our home destroyed by fire'

By Kevin Peachey
Personal finance correspondent

Image source, Firth family
Image caption,
The fire ripped through the house late at night

A family who fled for their lives from a fire that gutted their home are convinced the blaze was caused by a battery power pack bought on eBay.

The Firth family, who only escaped after gasping for air through broken windows, lost their two cats - Willow and Cordy - in the fire in September.

Now they are seeking compensation from eBay, claiming it listed dangerous products.

The company said it had not seen any forensic evidence regarding the cause.

The case draws increased attention to the position of online marketplaces such as eBay, with consumer groups calling for them to take more responsibility for the products they list for sale.

Image source, Firth family
Image caption,
The Firth family have moved to a friend's flat

Photographer Andrew Firth bought what he thought was a genuine battery power pack and charger from a seller on eBay to use with his camera equipment. Investigations are ongoing as to whether the product was counterfeit.

It arrived one morning in September, and he said he plugged it in to charge before he went to bed the same night.

In the early hours he was woken by the smoke alarm, and said he saw flickering under the desk where the battery was plugged in.

Quickly, fire was overwhelming the room and the landing was filling with smoke. He shouted to his family to "get out".

His wife Teila grabbed their son Fabian, aged 10 at the time, out of bed but were forced back by the thick, black smoke.

Her quick-thinking daughter, 14-year-old actress Verity, broke her bedroom window for air then grabbed her mobile phone to dial 999.

Teila and Fabian had smashed an upstairs window and were gasping for air while Andrew shoved soaking towels under doors.

It allowed the family a moment to dash out the front door and watch as fire destroyed much of their home, in east London.

Image source, Firth family
Image caption,
The family's cats were killed in the fire

Their home insurance had lapsed - one domestic chore that had been overlooked during a lockdown summer - leaving them relying on friends for help.

"We are moving forward together, but it is hard to get over the death of the cats. That brings back the misery and horror of it," Mrs Firth, 53, said.

"There is something achingly missing. Clothes and belongings can be replaced, but not mementos. We have lost our past."

Despite the financial damage and the shock - which left Mr Firth in hospital with a heart condition - there is still relief that they survived.

"There is regret and sadness," Mr Firth, 48, said. "But underlying that is the fact that thankfully we still have the family together."

Image source, Firth family
Image caption,
Much of the property was destroyed

Now the family, through law firm Leigh Day, is seeking more information about what they believe is the source of the fire, why it was listed on eBay, and any potential avenue for compensation.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) said its investigation had not identified a definite cause of the fire.

"Due to the structural integrity of the building the [fire investigation team] could not enter the whole site," a spokesman for the LFB said. "The fire was confirmed as accidental but the actual cause was recorded as undetermined."

Forensic experts commissioned by Leigh Day have found the battery pack, which is now under examination.

'Products removed'

The products were listed on eBay by a third-party seller in Hong Kong - although it is understood that eBay have yet to verify Mr Firth's purchase.

The products have been removed from listings on the site.

In a statement, eBay said: "We're very sorry to hear what happened to Mr Firth and his family. We have not been made aware of the status of the investigation and we have not seen any forensic evidence on the cause of the incident.

"As such, we are not able to comment further on the incident at this time, but we can reassure customers that eBay has taken proactive steps to remove the products from sale as a precautionary measure."

Image source, Leigh Day
Image caption,
The family said they were lucky to escape

Campaigners have demanded online marketplaces take as much responsibility for the products listed on their sites as a High Street retailer.

They are also warning consumers to take care in the run-up to Christmas.

Lesley Rudd, chief executive of Electrical Safety First, said: "We would urge people purchasing electrical products to use the stores of websites of known manufacturers and retailers such as those found on the High Street, rather than resorting to third-party sellers on online marketplaces.

"Our investigations have found some extremely dangerous items for sale on these platforms and sub-standard or counterfeit products are often very difficult to spot to the untrained eye."

The charity has drafted a proposed change in the law, including:

  • Online marketplaces bound by a clear legal obligation to prevent the sale of substandard products
  • Ensuring responsibility does not lie entirely with the third-party seller using the sites
  • Online services required to alert consumers who have bought a product found to be substandard, rather than only taking down listing

A petition urging the government to consider is proposals has been signed by nearly 15,000 people.