Families hit back at Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service following not guilty verdicts in Atherstone-on-Stour trial

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THE family of Rugby firefighter Ian Reid say they are ‘devastated’ that the jury returned a not guilty verdict relating to the Atherstone-on-Stour deaths.

Warwickshire Police held a press conference this morning (Thursday) for the families of the four firefighters who died in the warehouse fire in 2007.

Introducing the media briefing Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence said: “Today’s press conference is not about Warwickshire Police, Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, Warwickshire County Council (the Fire Authority) or the Crown Prosecution Service.

“Today is about the fire fighters who died in the fire at Atherstone on Stour and their families.

“I was asked by family members to arrange an opportunity for them to speak to the media and that is why we are here this morning.”

The press conference followed the end of the court case yesterday (Wednesday) where two senior fire officers were cleared of the manslaughter of the four firefighters - John Averis, Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley and Ian Reid from Rugby - who died tackling the blaze.

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

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.

Julie Reid, widow of Rugby firefighters Ian Reid, was at the press conference with their daughter Sophie.

Mrs Reid said: “I am devastated that the jury returned a not guilty verdict in court, but realise I have to accept their decision.

“The three original defendants were portrayed as experienced firefighters and incident commanders and their crews defended them as so. If their crews were so confident in their abilities as Incident Commanders and were so confident of the decisions made on that fateful night why then did those firefighters not have the courage of their convictions to ‘tell it like it was that night’ when questioned by the police or when taking the witness stand.

“Why would they not want to tell the truth about that night and why would the three defendants not want to give their accounts.

“Yes they had a legal right to say nothing but where were the qualities of the firefighter, the courage, the integrity?

“The Incident Commanders and Warwickshire firefighters should hang their heads in shame. All I ever wanted was to know what happened that night and have questions answered, but I don’t feel that has happened.

“I need to understand why successive BA crews entered the building but gained nothing. They were no nearer to tackling or indeed finding the fire due to excessive heat and smoke to floor level which was evident in the fire compartment after the first BA crew entered the building. What did they gain or find out from the second and third , the fateful fourth BA crew and the fifth BA crew entries that they didn’t have from the first entry.

“Why could they not see that they were achieving nothing and that until the conditions were improved in the fire compartment they would never be able to tackle this fire offensively.

“The three defendants have admitted that they made mistakes on 2nd November. Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service personnel must know that mistakes were made on that night. The Fire Brigade Union must know what mistakes were made on that night. I do believe that whilst all three defendants were experienced firefighters, I do not believe that they were sufficiently experienced as Incident Commanders and certainly did not possess the ability to look at the wider picture.

“They lacked the experience to say ‘withdraw BA crews, let’s re-assess, revisit the information provided to us and rethink our strategy.

“In fire fighting terms WFRS is ‘sleepy hollow’ and whatever the logical difficulties I would like to see a programme of changes for Incident Commanders to larger brigades in order that they may receive a broader spectrum of incidents.

“Over the past year I have witnessed disgraceful behaviour from some Warwickshire firefighters and that is from the top down. As to the recent talk from senior figures in the WFRS that firefighters should be able to go about their work without fear of prosecution I say this.

“We are all accountable for our actions, even the police. No one is above the law. We have a legal process in this country and if the police suspect a crime has been committed they are duty bound to investigate and pass their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service.

“The legal process will determine whether charges should be brought, not the profession of an individual. The jury could not find guilt IN THIS CASE. But if this case makes incident commanders take one extra minute to assess the situation presented on arriving at an incident then that can only be for the good. A firefighter’s life is not worth less than that of a member of the public and it most certainly is not worth a pallet of packing material.

“I do acknowledge that the defendants and their families have had a difficult year with this hanging over their heads but it is nothing compared to the heartache that Sophie and I have suffered for four and a half years. I lost my husband, who I loved very much and Sophie lost the dad she adored. Our heartache and loss is permanent.

“Why does Warwickshire Chief Fire Officer Smith think this case should not have gone to court? Does he not think that where the evidence is there, action should be taken. Is he really that arrogant and small minded to think that firefighters are above the law?

“Ian has been a retained firefighter for over four years and a whole time firefighter for three weeks. It was a job he loved and it saddens me that the men Ian respected are the very same men that let him down.”

During the press conference, Detective Superintendent Ken Lawrence said there were ‘a couple of inaccuracies’ that needed clarifying.

He said: “Some have said that there should never have been an investigation. Is should be clear to everyone that the police service has a legal duty to investigate every death. Four fire fighters lost their lives at work. How can anyone suggest that an investigation is not necessary.

“Directly as a result of this investigation Warwickshire County Council has pleaded guilty to a serious health and safety offence. They have acknowledged that lessons do need to be learned from events in November 2007.

“In essence I led two investigations. Both have been conducted with equal professionalism in order to find the truth.

“One investigation looked at the cause of the fire and if, as we believe, it was arson, who may have caused it. That investigation has been exhaustive but has not resulted in any charges so far. We have completed all available lines of enquiry but it remains open and we will respond appropriately to any new evidence that may come forth.

“The second investigation looked at decisions made on the night by those with a responsibility for the care of others and it looked at the Fire Authority’s responsibility for the Fire Service as a whole.

“Some commentators have criticised Warwickshire Police for the prosecution of the Incident Commanders.

“I would like to remind everyone that the police service does not prosecute anyone. We gather evidence.

“It is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service to agree charges and to put cases before the court.

“It the responsibility of a jury, guided by a judge, to consider the evidence and reach a verdict. That is our justice system. That is what has happened in this case, as in every other case.

“The CPS have publicly explained why the prosecution was warranted and in the public interest in this case and I don’t intend to reopen that debate or speak on their behalf today. I also don’t intend to talk about matters that are the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive.”

Following the press conference, Cllr Alan Farnell, leader of Warwickshire County Council said: “I can understand how, in her grief, the wife of a fire fighter who has lost his life in a fire that was started deliberately might make these kinds of comments but it is unforgivable that the police should stage a public press conference designed to do nothing but cast doubt on the verdict of a British jury.

“A senior police officer has been quoted as saying he is “disappointed” that three Warwickshire fire fighters have been acquitted of the flimsy charges brought against them.

This is simply outrageous. I will today be writing to the Chief Constable demanding an apology to the three fire officers and a clarification that the police acknowledge their complete innocence in the light of the jury’s unanimous not guilty verdict at court yesterday. If no such apology is forthcoming I will be referring the matter to the Police Authority.”

TO READ STATEMENTS FROM TWO OTHER FAMILIES CLICK ON THE BLUE TEXT LINKS BELOW

Family of Ashley Stephens

Family of Darren Yates-Badley