Apple farm boss Andrew Stocker guilty of manslaughter

image captionAndrew Stocker had denied the manslaughter of Ashley Clarke and Scott Cain at Blackmoor Estate

A farm manager has been convicted of the manslaughter of two workers who died after being sent into a storage tank while holding their breath.

Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke suffocated in the nitrogen-filled apple container, where the oxygen level was 1%.

They were trying to retrieve apples for an agricultural competition.

Andrew Stocker, who was boss of the fruit farm at Tory peer Lord Selborne's Hampshire estate, had encouraged the practice nicknamed "scuba diving".

The two men got in through a small hatch in the roof of the sealed container.

media captionScott Cain's mother, Sherilyn Oreilly said her son ''loved life'', while Ashley Clarke's father, Ian Clarke said ''we miss everything about him''

'Kudos of winning'

Stocker, 57, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, Hampshire, had denied manslaughter, but admitted exposing the men to a risk of death.

He was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the men's deaths, but had left instructions.

Mr Cain, 23, and Mr Clarke, 24, who were both assistants at the farm at the Blackmoor Estate in Liss, were found lying on crates of apples.

image copyrightHampshire Police
image captionScott Cain, 23, and Ashley Clarke, 24, were both assistants at the farm and were found lying on crates of apples

Colleagues and paramedics attempted to revive them, but were unsuccessful and both men were declared dead at the scene.

Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting during the trial at Winchester Crown Court, said anyone entering the unit would "die immediately" once they ran out of air.

The apples were stored for preservation in nitrogen gas.

Mr Dennis said accepted practice in the industry for gathering samples was to use a net to hook out the fruit.

The apples the men were looking for were to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.

Mr Dennis said: "Andrew Stocker was a keen participant in this competition and took pride in his entries.

"Financial prizes were very modest; however, it was the kudos of winning that was more important.

"The defendant knew that the only way the best samples could be gathered is for someone to enter from the top hatch and make a selection of fruit."

image copyrightHampshire Police
image captionThe men were "scuba diving" for apples, a nickname used when workers held their breath in the nitrogen gas

Mr Cain was 23, engaged and had a young child, and had been working at Blackmoor Estates since 2009 as a pack house assistant.

Mr Clarke, 24, who was also engaged, had been working as an assistant checking the quality of fruit for eight months.

His parents Ian and Sharon Clarke described the trial as "emotionally draining".

In a statement, they said "collecting apples from confined atmosphere units with virtually no oxygen" was not a "safe and acceptable practice".

"Whilst we recognise [Mr Stocker] is not a bad man and did not mean to harm Ashley, his negligent actions led to his death.

"We as a family... will be serving a life sentence as we try to come to terms with the loss of a son and brother who we shall never see again," the statement said.

image captionThe apples were stored for preservation under a hatch in nitrogen gas
image captionAccepted practice in the industry is to use a net to hook out the fruit

Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears Ltd, which represents apple growers throughout the UK, said the industry was "appalled and shocked" by the "tragic incident".

He said: "There has always been a golden rule that you should never enter a controlled atmosphere store until it has been fully vented and the oxygen level has risen above 19.5%."

All operatives had reviewed their operating procedures, equipment, and security since the deaths, he said.

Det Sgt Rich Sellwood, of Hampshire Constabulary, said the deaths were "completely avoidable".

He added: "It is a tragedy for all involved. We hope that lessons will be learned that prevent this from ever happening again."

It can now be reported that Blackmoor Estate Ltd pleaded guilty to three offences related to contravening health and safety regulations in January.

The company and Stocker will be sentenced on 1 July.