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Senior UK fire officers cleared of manslaughter of four colleagues

31 May 2012

On 30 May, two senior fire officers were found not guilty of the manslaughter of four colleagues who died tackling a blaze at a warehouse in Atherstone-on-Stour, Warwickshire. Firefighters John Averis, Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley and Ian Reid died as result of the 2007 blaze after entering the building wearing breathing apparatus.

Senior fire officers (left to right) Simmons, Woodward and Ashley were cleared of manslaughter of four of their colleagues at Stafford Crown Court
Senior fire officers (left to right) Simmons, Woodward and Ashley were cleared of manslaughter of four of their colleagues at Stafford Crown Court

The prosecution had alleged Timothy Woodward and Adrian Ashley, who were in charge of the operation, were criminally responsible for the "needless" deaths of the men. Both denied manslaughter by gross negligence.

Ashley, a watch manager from Nuneaton, was accused of breaching his duty of care by risking the men's lives when "no other lives were at risk" in the blaze. Woodward, a station manager from Leamington Spa, was alleged to have breached his duty of care by not stopping the deployment of the men.

Fire service officer Paul Simmons, 50, from Hampton Magna, was acquitted five weeks into the trial on the judge's direction at Stafford Crown Court.

Graeme Smith, Warwickshire’s chief fire officer, said: “There is clear evidence that the Atherstone fire was arson. The police clearly thought it was, because in 2009 they arrested several people on suspicion of arson. And during this court hearing we have discovered that the independent report into the cause of the Atherstone fire also concluded that it was arson.

“So why have the arsonists not been apprehended? And why instead did three innocent fire officers find themselves in the dock? Something went badly wrong with this case. I want some answers, the three incident commanders want some answers and the families of those who died deserve some answers too.”

Mr Smith said he would be writing to the Home Secretary to request a formal investigation into the decision to prosecute the men. He also criticised the treatment of the three men when they were arrested, saying they had been treated like common criminals.

Defence solicitor Chris Humphries said there had been "systemic failings" at the fire service involving management, training and equipment but the decision to prosecute the three men was "misjudged and ill advised". He said the police should have made greater efforts to catch the arsonist and should have prosecuted the buildings owners.

However, Det Supt Ken Lawrence, of Warwickshire Police, who led the £4.6m investigation, said the investigation had been the "right thing" to do. He said officers did not find enough evidence, such as forensic material or witness statements, to pursue an arson case against anybody.

Warwickshire Police Authority chairman Phil Robson said the police had a legal duty to investigate the incident as a crime.

In January Warwickshire County Council, which is responsible for the county's fire service, pleaded guilty at Wolverhampton Crown Court to a health and safety charge relating to the blaze.

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