Fire managers and Warwickshire County Council in court over Atherstone-on-stour warehouse fire deaths

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THREE Warwickshire fire service managers have appeared in court on charges relating to the deaths of four of their colleagues in the Atherstone-on-Stour warehouse fire in 2007.

Watch managers Paul Simmons, 49, from Hampton Magna near Warwick, and Adrian Ashley, 44, from Nuneaton, and station manager Timothy Woodward, 50, from Leamington, all face charges of manslaughter by gross negligence.

The charges follow a tragic fire which engulfed the Wealmoor vegetable packing plant in Atherstone-on-Stour in south Warwickshire in November 2007.

As a number of crews tackled the huge fire, Simmons, Ashley and Woodward are all said to have acted as incident commanders ‘before, during and after’ their colleagues were sent into the burning building.

The blaze claimed the lives of four fire-fighters who went into the burning building – 20-year-old Ashley Stephens, 27-year-old John Averis, 24-year-old Darren Yates-Badley and 44-year-old Ian Reid from Rugby.

The three defendants first appeared before Warwickshire magistrates sitting in front of the dock in court number one at Warwick Crown Court – and then in the dock in the same courtroom sitting as the crown court.

During the first hearing the magistrates clerk announced that it was alleged the defendants unlawfully killed their colleagues ‘by gross negligence in that they owed them a duty of care in fulfilling their role and discharging their responsibility as incident commander at the scene of a fire.’

It was said the defendants ‘failed to take reasonable care by committing fire-fighters wearing breathing apparatus for offensive fire-fighting in circumstances that involved exposing them to substantial risk to life when no other lives were at risk.’

They were also said to have ‘failed to end a breathing apparatus deployment’ within the building.

Also represented in the magistrates court was Warwickshire County Council which faces a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act of failing to ensure the health and safety of its employees.

Prosecutor Michael Gregory said that was an ‘either-way offence’ which could be dealt with either in the magistrates court or in the crown court, where he higher financial penalty could be imposed.

He told the magistrates: “It is the Crown submission that it is not suitable for summary trial.”

He said it was alleged the council had failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its staff by having effective systems for training and the capabilities of the fire-fighters, which it was alleged was ‘a substantial contributory cause of the deaths of the four fire-fighters.’

The magistrates agreed that the case against the county council should also be dealt with in the crown court – and adjourned that case for a formal committal hearing to take place on May 20.

The three fire officers, who had been sitting at a desk in front of the dock, then had their cases formally sent to the crown court.

Following a brief adjournment, during which the magistrates left and Judge Richard Griffith-Jones came into the same court, Ashley, Simmons and Woodward moved into the dock for a preliminary crown court hearing.

The Judge questioned what was meant by ‘failing to end all breathing apparatus deployment.’

Mr Gregory explained that the four fire-fighters who died were the only ones in the building wearing breathing apparatus – and that part of the draft indictment related specifically to failing to withdraw them as well as other fire officers from the burning building.

The case was adjourned for the remaining prosecution papers to be served on the defence and for defence lawyers to consider them and prepare defence statements prior to a plea and case management hearing on August 12.

Judge Griffith-Jones observed: “This is a case which will surely be heard by a Judge of the High Court.”

He said it was unlikely there would be one sitting at Warwick Crown Court in August, but that the plea and case management hearing ‘should remain here,’ although he expected the eventual trial will be heard in Birmingham rather than in Warwickshire.

Ashley, Simmons and Woodward were all granted unconditional bail until the hearing in August.

Among other senior fire officers to have been questioned by the police during what was said to have been a £4.5m investigation was Ashley Stephens’s father Paul Stephens.

But at the end of February he was one of nine people who were told no action was to be taken against them.