Coventry & Warwickshire

Atherstone fire victim's widow 'devastated' by verdicts

The widow of a firefighter who died after a warehouse blaze has said she is "devastated" two senior fire officers were cleared of his manslaughter.

Julie Reid's husband Ian and three other firefighters died after tackling the fire in Atherstone-on-Stour, Warwickshire, in 2007.

Incident commanders Timothy Woodward and Adrian Ashley were cleared on Wednesday over their deaths.

Fire service officer Paul Simmons was acquitted five weeks into the trial.

Mrs Reid, speaking at a press conference at Warwickshire Police's headquarters in Leek Wootton, said: "I'm devastated the jury returned a not guilty verdict in court but realise I have to accept their decision.

'Questions unanswered'

"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 and of the decisions made on that fateful night, why then did those firefighters not have the courage to tell it like it was when questioned by police or taking the witness stand?

Image caption Timothy Woodward and Adrian Ashley were cleared of manslaughter by gross negligence

"Why would they not want to tell the truth and why would the defendants not want to give their accounts?

"The incident commanders and Warwickshire firefighters should hang their heads in shame.

"All I ever wanted to know was what happened that night and have questions answered but I don't feel that that has happened.

"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 when arriving at an incident, then that can only be for the good."

Mr Reid died in hospital after tackling the blaze while Ashley Stephens, John Averis and Darren Yates-Badley were killed in the warehouse.

'Where is daddy?'

Mr Stephens' then fiancee, Emma Crocker, said: "He was the love of my life. We'd been together since I was 14 years old and we had so many dreams and hopes for the future.

"I get distraught when [her son] George asks me 'where is my daddy and when he is coming home?' It breaks my heart he has no memory of him.

"The fire service was once my family but that has all finished now."

Warwickshire's chief fire officer, Graeme Smith, had condemned the decision to press charges against the three senior officers who he said were "treated like common criminals".

He criticised the prosecution case, saying it relied too heavily on the evidence of one expert witness, and questioned how it was in the public interest to prosecute three men who were "just doing their duty".

But Det Supt Ken Lawrence, who led the Warwickshire Police investigation, defended the case.

He said: "We have a legal duty to investigate every death in whatever circumstances.

"I am... personally disappointed with the verdict that has been reached."

'Unforgivable' press conference

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.

Image caption The men who died were Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, Ian Reid and John Averis

Councillor Alan Farnell, leader of the Conservative-led authority, was unhappy with the comments from the press conference.

Mr Farnell said: "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 saying he is 'disappointed' that three firefighters have been acquitted of the flimsy charges brought against them. This is simply outrageous."

He added that he would be writing to the chief constable demanding an apology to the three fire officers and a clarification that the police acknowledged their "complete innocence" in light of the verdict.

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