England

Joe McCafferty death: Twenty years on from arson attack

Joe McCafferty Image copyright West Yorkshire Police
Image caption Joe McCafferty died from injuries suffered in the house fire

Seven-year-old Joe McCafferty was sleeping soundly at his aunt's home when someone poured petrol through the letterbox and torched the house. Twenty years on, his family still live with the terrors of that night but remain determined to find his killer.

Joe was staying with his cousins at the house in Haywood Avenue in Marsh, Huddersfield, when the arsonist struck on 3 May 1997.

All five members of the family escaped or were rescued, but Joe never pulled through.

And although arrests have been made, no-one has ever been charged over the attack, which has left all of those affected struggling to make sense of it.

'I could feel my skin lifting off my body'

Image caption Joe's aunt, two cousins and older brother managed to escape from the house on Haywood Avenue

Joe's cousin, Chantelle Cunningham, was the 12-year-old girl who raised the alarm when smoke engulfed her room.

She says she's still "living with that terror that was inflicted on me and my family", adding: "I am empty, alone, lost."

Describing the fire, she says: "It was that hot I could feel my skin lifting off my body. It was so intense and I just remember screaming like I couldn't breathe. Any tiny little breath, it burnt.

"I was in the room with Joe only steps away from me. It just went quiet and I felt as if I wasn't there for a minute, and then all of a sudden it just all came back more intense than ever and I could hear just my mum screaming outside, 'get out!'

"The flames were burning my head, my back and the side of my face, my feet.

"Basically I just crawled out of the window head first and my neighbour managed to break my fall and catch me. It was just screams and terrors outside it was absolute mayhem. My cousins were still in there."

In the house at the time were Debbie Pierre, Chantelle's mother and Joe's aunt; Chantelle; Joe McCafferty; Nicky McCafferty; and Chantelle's step-sister Shereen.

Joe and Nicky were trapped in the house until they were rescued by firefighters. Nicky survived but Joe died later in hospital.


'The paint on the ceiling was dripping like lava'

Chantelle's mother and Joe's aunt, Debra Pierre, said the day of the fire was the most horrendous of her life.

"To top it all, to lose my nephew, that was something that I will never, ever, ever get over," she says.

"The paint on the ceiling was dripping as though it was like lava.

"Our mouths were blistering up because when we were breathing it was the air that was going in our mouths.

"Chantelle was drifting in and out of consciousness because of the fumes.

"I went looking for Joe again but I got beaten back by the smoke and the flames."

She added: "I think Joe had collapsed, he was in the room but we had just kept walking past him and not known because of the smoke.

"You live it everyday, but we will get justice, we will."


'I'll carry on fighting for my son'

Image caption Tracey McCafferty said Joe was her "ray of sunshine"

Joe's mother, Tracey McCafferty, was away when the fire took place at her sister's house and her sons had been staying there for a few days.

Speaking about the day she returned home, she said: "That morning I decided to catch an earlier train. I got a taxi straight up to Debbie's house to pick the kids up.

"I remember driving up and coming to take the left to go on to the street, and there were just people, police. I had to stop and say, that's my sister's house.

"I went straight down to the accident and emergency and they took me into a little room, and a nurse came and she started telling me what had happened to everyone.

"She just said 'Joe didn't make it', and since that day my life has never been the same.

"I then had to tell Nicky that Joe had died. It was just the worst day.

"It has been a long struggle to get where I am now, not knowing who's done it.

"I'm not going to stop until I get the truth. As long as I'm still breathing, I'll carry on fighting for my son."


'Case keeps me awake at night'

In May 2015, police arrested a 65-year-old man and a 60-year-old woman on suspicion of murder. They were later released on bail but West Yorkshire Police say they continue to review the case 20 years on.

Det Supt Nick Wallen, of the Homicide and Major Enquiry Team, says he believes someone is out there knows what happened on the night of Joe's death and it remains "one of our most prominent unsolved crimes".

"This is the type of case that detectives do take home with them," he says.

"It's the kind of case that you lie in bed at night and you're wracking your brains, have you done absolutely everything you can to try and find the offender responsible?

"We've looked at whether there was somebody who had a specific grudge against Joe's family, whether Joe's aunt was in a dispute with any of her neighbours.

"There were a number of arson attacks in the area at the time, we were looking if it had been linked to that. Or was it a random attack?"

"I believe there is somebody out there who knows who is responsible and I would urge them to come forward to the police.

"I would like to give some comfort to the family and say that while this case remains an unsolved one, you have the promise of West Yorkshire Police that we will do absolutely everything in our power to find the person or persons responsible," he said.

Det Sgt Wallen said anyone who wants to come forward with information can do so anonymously.

The main clue in the case is a green plastic Unipart container used for motor oil, which was found outside the house.

Det Sgt Wallen says the a piece of evidence from within the container was re-examined in recent months but no new leads were found.

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