BREAKING NEWS: Warwickshire fire officers found not guilty of Atherstone-on-Stour warehouse deaths

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Two senior fire officers have been cleared of the manslaughter of four firefighters, including one from Rugby, who died tackling a blaze at a Warwickshire warehouse.

Incident commanders Timothy Woodward, 51, and Adrian Ashley, 45, were charged after the Atherstone-on-Stour fire in November 2007.

Firefighters John Averis, Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley and Ian Reid, from Rugby, died during the blaze.

Mr Woodward and Mr Ashley had denied manslaughter by gross negligence at Stafford Crown Court.

Fire service officer Paul Simmons, 50, was acquitted five weeks into his trial on the judge’s direction.

The jury took more than seven hours to acquit Mr Woodward, station manager, and Mr Ashley, watch manager, after hearing six weeks of evidence at the court.

Following the verdict, Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service and the Chief Fire Officers Association said they are writing to the Home Secretary and to the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into why the three men were prosecuted, while Warwickshire Police condemned the verdict.

Graeme Smith, the Chief Fire Officer for Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “I am very pleased that the case against our three Incident Commanders has so comprehensively collapsed. I expected nothing less. It is now clear that these cases should never have been brought to court. I am relieved that their ordeal is over but I also feel a sense of sorrow and remembrance for the four brave fire fighters who died at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007. We will now be seeking assurances from ministers that prosecutions like this never happen again.”

Mr Smith expressed anger at the fact that the arsonists responsible for the Atherstone fire and the deaths of four fighters had not been caught.

“Let me be clear about this,” he 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 of a British court?”

“Something went badly wrong with this case. It’s time for some answers. I want some answers, the three Incident Commanders want some answers and the families of those who died deserve some answers too,” said Mr Smith.

Speaking shortly after the case ended Lee Howell, the President of the Chief Fire Officers’ Association said: “There are important national issues at stake here. Do we want fire officers who are inflexible and ultra-cautious or do we want fire officers who use their initiative, their experience and their common sense when dealing with fires such as the one at Atherstone-on-Stour? Currently fire fighters face a “no win” situation. If they “play it by the book” they can find themselves pilloried as time serving “jobsworths” but if they use their initiative they can find themselves in court facing the loss of their liberty and their reputation. I am seriously concerned that fire officers up and down the country will now be asking themselves ‘why on earth would I ever want to be an Incident Commander’?”

Warwickshire Fire and Rescue and the Chief Fire Officers Association will be writing to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary in the next few days.

Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence from Warwickshire Police said: “The jury has reached its verdict after hearing the evidence presented in court and we have to accept that.

“I am, however, personally disappointed with the verdict that has been reached.

“This has been one of the most complicated investigations ever undertaken by Warwickshire Police.

“There have been many challenges to overcome, difficult decisions to make and unpopular actions to take throughout the four and a half years.

“Whatever the result of the trial, the investigation has been successful and has had a number of positive outcomes for the families of the four men who died and fire fighters in Warwickshire and across the country.

“I promised that we would do everything we could to determine how the four men – Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid and John Averis – died, and to find some answers for their families and loved ones.

“I believe that we have done that.

“During the course of the investigation we discovered some safety critical issues which are of great importance for fire fighters nationally and we shared those with the fire service for the benefit of all brigades.

“As a result of sharing those findings I believe that there have been some changes to training for the use of breathing apparatus and fire behaviour.

“Investigating the deaths in the way, and to the extent, that we did was the right thing to do and has been justified by the fact that three men were charged and brought to trial.

“As a police force it is our job to investigate crime, and there is no more serious crime than causing the death of another person.

“We believe that the deaths of Ashley, Darren, Ian and John were unnecessary. We do not want any more lives lost through the same kind of human misjudgement and organisational practices which have been uncovered.

“Those practices will, of course, be addressed in the basis of plea hearing for Warwickshire County Council, which has pleaded guilty to a number of health and safety offences.

“Clearly things did not go as they should on the night, and there are some serious lessons to be learned by the fire service and it is important that they take this on board.

“Warwickshire Police invested nearly £4.6m, of which £3.45m was covered by a Home Office Special Grant, in this investigation.

“This was necessary to ensure a thorough investigation into an incident of this magnitude.

“We conducted in the region of 800 interviews in nine different languages; we engaged the assistance of experts to help us understand the behaviour of fire and the operational management of fire crews in a variety of circumstances; we studied incident command, BA procedures, risk assessment and training; and we commissioned the computer generated reconstruction of the warehouse, which was shown in court, to help us understand the layout and sequence of events within the building.

“We presented our findings to the Crown Prosecution Service who, after consultation at the highest level, agreed the evidence and made the decision to charge three fire fire fighters with gross negligence manslaughter.

“There have, of course, been two strands to this investigation – what caused the fire and what caused the deaths of the four fire fighters.

“The fire may or may not have been started deliberately but our investigations have not resulted in anyone being prosecuted for that.

“The four fire fighters 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.

“Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the families of Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid and John Averis.

“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.”

Statement from Phil Robson, chair of Warwickshire Police Authority: “Warwickshire Police Authority has always had complete confidence in the investigation and the way it was conducted.

“Investigations cost money, complex investigations cost substantially more money - and this was a very complex investigation.

“The main costs were incurred during the early part of the investigation, around securing evidence from a very large scene and an unstable building.

“These reduced year by year after the initial work had been done and less staff were required to disseminate the material gathered.

“The police authority has been updated regularly on the status of the investigation and the costs incurred have been subject to audit and review.

“The progress of the investigation has been the subject of several external reviews which ensured our response was proportional to the seriousness of the developing evidence.

“The majority of the costs have been justified to and met by the Home Office, so have not come out of the local policing budget.

“The police service has a legal duty to investigate this incident as a crime.

“There are no more serious criminal investigations than those involving the loss of life.

“I am satisfied that the investigation has been progressed as quickly as professionally possible having regard to all the circumstances.”