A ROW has broken out between firefighters and police as an investigation which lasted almost five years comes to an end.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has hit out at the police and prosecutors following the acquittal of Nuneaton fire manager Adrian Ashley and Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service colleague Timothy Woodward.
As revealed in yesterday’s Nuneaton News, the pair were found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence over the deaths of four firefighters in a warehouse blaze in 2007.
While Warwickshire Police’s Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence has said he is ‘personally disappointed’ by the verdict following the force’s most complicated investigation ever undertaken, the FBU is asking why the arsonists responsible for starting the blaze in Atherstone on Stour have not been prosecuted, but the crews who tried to put it out were pursued to the end.
Assistant general secretary Andy Dark said: “This was the first time firefighters at an incident were accused of the manslaughter of their colleagues. This prosecution cast a shadow across the whole fire service and caused anger and concern.
“We are relieved at the not guilty verdicts but firefighters are furious at the police and prosecutors. The criminals who started the fire are still free, but those who tried to put the fire out were arrested, charged and brought to trial.
“The real criminals remain at large while innocent firefighters faced charges of killing their own colleagues. Police and prosecutors took the worse tragedy in the fire service for over 40 years and turned it into a farce.
“There is still no justice for the families of the firefighters who died because the criminals who started the fire are still free. Many questions central to the safety of all firefighters remain unanswered.
“Every firefighter and officer at an incident does the best they can with the training, knowledge, equipment and personnel at the scene. Faced with an inferno they all do what they can, some of which is courageous and brave.
“This was a major employer with hundreds of employees and a major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables to large numbers of supermarkets feeding millions of people. Firefighters are here to save property, jobs and businesses, not only to save lives and it was right to try and put the fire out.”
The complex investigation cost nearly £4.6m, of which £3.45m was covered by a Home Office Special Grant.
Officers conducted some 800 plus interviews in nine different languages, studied the operational management of fire crews and commissioned computer generated reconstruction of the warehouse which cost Ashley Stephens, John Averis, Darren Yates-Badley and Ian Reid their lives.
“There have, of course, been two strands to this investigation – what caused the fire and what caused the deaths of the four firefighters,” said Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence.
“The fire may or may not have been started deliberately but our investigations have not resulted in anyone being prosecuted for that. The four firefighters died not because of the fire but because they were sent in to fight the fire – a fire in an empty building where no lives other than their own were at risk, with insufficient information and resources. That is why prosecutions were brought.
“Police officers work with other emergency services on a daily basis as we jointly protect the people of Warwickshire. I trust that our professional working relationship with colleagues from Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service will continue and that everyone understands the responsibility we have to investigate serious matters, particularly where lives are lost.”
Paying tribute to the families of the men who died, he added: “The past four and a half years have been extremely difficult and traumatic for them, but they have supported us throughout the investigation despite the many difficult circumstances and set-backs.
“I hope that now that the investigation and trial are over they can now move forward with their lives."
Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service is writing to the Home Secretary and to the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into why three firefighters, Mr Ashley, Mr Woodward and another officer, Paul Simmons, were prosecuted in the first place.