Fire officers cleared over Atherstone warehouse deaths

Incident commander Timothy Woodward said the support received since the fire had been "truly humbling"

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Two fire officers have been found not guilty of the manslaughter of four colleagues 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.

Warwickshire's chief fire officer condemned the decision to press criminal charges against them.

Firefighters John Averis, Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley and Ian Reid died as result of the 2007 blaze.

All four firefighters, from Warwickshire, had entered the building wearing breathing apparatus after the fire had started.

'Common criminals'

The prosecution had alleged Mr Ashley and Mr Woodward, who were in charge of the operation, were criminally responsible for the "needless" deaths of the men.

Mr Ashley, a watch manager from Nuneaton, was accused of breaching his duty of care by risking the men's lives when "no other lives were at risk" in the blaze.

Chief Fire Officer Graeme Smith: "It was crystal clear that these charges should never have been brought."

Mr Woodward, a station manager from Leamington Spa, was alleged to have breached his duty of care by not stopping the deployment of the men.

Both denied manslaughter by gross negligence.

Three of the men died in the fire while Mr Reid was rescued but died later in hospital.

Roger Day, the expert witness for the defence, had challenged the views of Dr Michael Dennett, a fire consultant called by the prosecution.

Mr Day said there were no set rules regarding fighting fires and entering the building was among them. He said that decisions were made at the scene of the fire.

Fire service officer Paul Simmons, 50, from Hampton Magna, was acquitted five weeks into the trial on the judge's direction at Stafford Crown Court.

'Sorrow and remembrance'

Reading a statement outside court after the trial, Mr Woodward said it was the acquitted men's sincere wish that the dead men's families had had their questions answered and they could now move on with their lives.

Graeme Smith, chief fire officer for Warwickshire, led criticism of the decision to prosecute and said Mr Ashley, Mr Simmons and Mr Woodward were "treated like common criminals".

Clockwise from top left: Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid, John Averis The men who died were Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid and John Averis

He called for the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to investigate how and why the prosecution was allowed to proceed.

Mr Smith said: "It is crystal clear that these cases should never have been brought to court in the first place."

Defence solicitor Chris Humphries said there had been "systemic failings" at the fire service involving management, training and equipment but the decision to prosecute the three men was "misjudged and ill advised".

He said the police should have made greater efforts to catch the arsonist and should have prosecuted the buildings owners.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said it was absurd that the arsonists who started the fire had not faced trial while fire officers had.

Not enough evidence

However, Det Supt Ken Lawrence, of Warwickshire Police, who led the £4.6m investigation, said the investigation had been the "right thing" to do.

He said officers did not find enough evidence, such as forensic material or witness statements, to pursue an arson case against anybody.

He added: "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 answers for their families and loved ones.

"I believe that we have done that."

Warwickshire Police Authority chairman Phil Robson said the police had a legal duty to investigate the incident as a crime.

In January Warwickshire County Council, which is responsible for the county's fire service, pleaded guilty at Wolverhampton Crown Court to a health and safety charge relating to the blaze.

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