Coventry & Warwickshire

Atherstone fire investigation 'has split community'

Faye Yates-Badley and Mandy Baylis
Image caption Faye Yates-Badley and Mandy Baylis supported the police investigation

Emma Crocker's four-year-old son George is small, dark and shy - the "mirror image" of his father.

But George never got to know Ashley Stephens, one of the four firemen killed tackling the Atherstone warehouse blaze in Warwickshire.

Ms Crocker will never forget the night of 2 November, 2007, when everything changed.

She remembers bathing George, then just three months old, and waiting for her 20-year-old fiancee to deal with the fire and come home with a takeaway, which it had been "his turn" to buy.

The retained firefighter from Alcester fire station never returned. Ms Crocker said she still got flashbacks of "everybody screaming" on that horrendous night.

His body and those of two missing colleagues were retrieved from the warehouse wreckage after a four-day search. A fourth firefighter, Ian Reid, 44, died in hospital.

Ms Crocker was among relatives of the four men who spoke of their loss and heartache at a news conference following the trial of three senior fire officers who were charged over the deaths.

Timothy Woodward, 51, Adrian Ashley, 45, and Paul Simmons, 50, were all found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence at Stafford Crown Court.

But as well as sadness, the families' statements revealed their anger and frustration at the fire service and the Fire Brigades' Union (FBU).

Image caption The families spoke of the firefighters' love of their work

The bitterness and rifts which have developed within the fire service and its usually tight community were clearly evident at the briefing at Warwickshire Police's headquarters in Leek Wootton.

The families said the £4.6m investigation into the fire deaths and the six-week trial which followed still left questions "unanswered", particularly as the defendants, as was their right, had not taken the stand.

Ian Reid's widow Julie said: "All I ever wanted was to know what happened that night and I don't feel that has happened."

She said the fire service had not been supportive of the families or helped in the investigation.

"There's been disgraceful behaviour from firefighters, from the top down," she said.

'Lack of compassion'

Her husband died doing a job he loved, but "would be saddened that the men he respected are the same men who let him down," she told journalists.

Image caption Ms Crocker described her father Ian as her "rock"

Hundreds of firefighters from around the UK lined the streets for their colleagues' funerals and flowers piled up outside Alcester and Stratford-upon-Avon fire stations.

But the families said a lot of support fell away after prosecutions were brought.

After the news conference, Mrs Reid said the county's fire service had "shown a complete lack of compassion for all the families".

"Their deaths have been overlooked, it's all been about the three firefighters on trial," she said.

Ms Crocker said the fire service had been "my family" and eight firefighters had been among George's godparents, but she did not see them now.

'Our fault'

"My relationship with firefighters now is non-existent," she said.

Ms Crocker, who was 17 when Ashley died, said later that their social life had evolved around the fire service and Alcester station.

Her father Ian, who his daughter described as "my rock", said she had spent the four days after Ashley's disappearance with his colleagues and their families at the station in the small market town.

But Ms Crocker said people from that circle "crossed the street" to avoid her, which had been a massive shock.

Image caption The warehouse was searched for several days for the missing men's bodies

Meanwhile, Faye Yates-Badley told the news conference how she had only been married to Darren, 24, "for three weeks and six days" when he died.

"He lost everything and gained nothing and all Darren wanted was to be a firefighter like his father," she said.

Mr Yates-Badley had worked at Alcester station for five years and was also a gym instructor.

Darren's mother Mandy Baylis, who lives and works in the town, said the investigation had split the firefighting community there.

"They believe it was our fault that there was a prosecution. I've lost not only my son but all my friends of 25 years," she said.

"There's no community. No-one helped us at all."

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