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PENHALLOW HOTEL – ACCIDENT OR ARSON? Following the open verdict delivered at the inquest into the fire at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay Alan Cox – a fire safety consultant who has taken a special interest in hotel safety – sets out his views on the lessons that can be learned.
i have been in the fire and safety profession for nearly 45 years and never did I think that I would read a newspaper headline like this about a fire in the UK: Fire Brigade not capable of saving blaze victims. The news item in the Lancashire Post reported on the testimony given by one of the survivors at the inquest into the deaths of three people in the fire at the Penhallow Hotel, Newquay in 2007. She told the inquest how she saw one of the victims, 80-year old Joan Harper, trapped in her blazing room. She said that firefighters with just one engine and no firefighting ladder were to ill-equipped
to come to the rescue. Describing the moment firemen did arrive at the scene, she is quoted as saying: “Everybody was shouting at the fire brigade to save the lady, but they did not take any actions to save her…When I saw their single fire engine with one hosepipe, this just reinforced my despair. They did not have the capability to deal with the fire.” Following the open verdict at the end of the three week inquest, the new chief fire officer of Cornwall is reported as saying: “The performance of Cornwall’s fire and rescue service
on the evening of the fire and during the investigation process has been closely scrutinised by some of the country’s most eminent fire and rescue experts, who concluded that it had met the required standard in all aspects.” You could easily be forgiven for thinking that he was referring to a different incident. It would take a lot more than these words to reassure me – and a lot of other people who were there at the time – that the required standards had been met in all aspects. If they were met there was, in my view, something radically wrong with the required standards.
“The question has to be asked: how did the fire spread so quickly in such a short space of time?” www.fseonline.co.uk
The generally accepted scenario put forward during the inquest appears to be as follows: 22.15
A burglary was reported in one of the guest rooms and the police were called. 23.32 The police arrived. 23.40 The shutters were closed in the bar. 23.59 The police left. 00.10 The lights failed in the lounge and the barman went to investigate. 00.15 The fire alarm actuated and indicated a fire in zone 6 which was the boiler room (1st floor) 00.17 The barman calls the fire service. 00.26 The fire service in attendance Newquay 511R (it was confirmed that this time was not logged as the Fire Control Operators were taking multiple repeat fire calls) 00.36 Second appliance in attendance – ‘St Columb’ Note that some of the above timings are approximate. Also, while this is the generally accepted timing of events, there is some confusion surrounding some of the events. For example, two of the staff who were on duty were unable to agree who closed the bar shutters. When the barman rang the fire service he said he could see smoke behind a door, but this was not confirmed by other people in the bar at the time. In respect of the arrival of the first appliance, the fire service have indicated that whilst no arrival time was logged, it was taken as being the time that they received a “make pumps 4” message at 00.26 This I feel may not be totally accurate, because it is common practice if you are on the way to a fire and can see that it is a very large fire, to send an assistance message before you arrive and I am fairly sure that they would have been able to see this incident well before they arrived.
There can be little doubt that the ramifications of this fire are serious and whether the fire was accidental or deliberate, the question has to be asked: how did the fire spread so quickly in such a short space of time? The forensic scientists were of the opinion that the fire started less than 20 minutes before the smoke detector in the first floor boiler room operated, and so the fire could have started at around midnight. In just over 20 minutes the fire had spread from the beer/alcohol store behind the bar and had engulfed the external rear fire escape. The reason for the rapid fire spread was because the beer store had a
plastic/perspex roof; this was sited under the external wooden fire escape and this provided no fire protection to the staircase. The guidance on protecting external fire escapes has been in existence for nearly 40 years and to my knowledge, has not changed significantly in all that time. So why was this problem not identified before the fire? I cannot answer this because the information is not publicly available (I have not even been able to determine if a fire certificate was definitely issued) but what is certain is that had the required level of fire protection been in place at the time of the fire, this would not have happened. Unfortunately, there was a second route that the fire took. The experts put forward the theory that the fire could have spread into the first floor boiler room which was above the beer/alcohol store, either through the floor which may then have caused the lights to go out, or externally. When the fire reached the boiler room it then activated the smoke detector before travelling into other areas. At the same time, the fire door between the bar store and the lounge appears to have failed fairly quickly, which then allowed fire to quickly spread via the main internal staircase (which was not protected at the bottom with a fire door) up to the upper floors and into an unprotected light/ventilation well which went up to roof level. So the second question that must be asked is why the internal staircase and light/ventilation well had not been fire protected? Again I cannot answer this question as the information is not available and the details of the fire certificate have not been ascertained, but if this protection had been in place the internal escape routes would not have failed as quickly as they did and guests might well have been able to escape safely.
Accident or arson?
The inquest returned an open verdict on the three people who died in the fire and the coroner, Dr Emma Carylon, told the jury that a verdict of unlawful killing was not an option, as investigators were not able to confirm the fire was started deliberately. Of course, there have been many theories about how the fire started and it is clear that both the Devon and Cornwall Police and Cornwall Fire Service believe it was started deliberately. In reaching this decision, a great deal of reliance was placed on the evidence of forensic scientists who were called in to investigate the fire. They indicated that they had ruled out all of the obvious and accidental causes of fire and were left with only the deliberate act, which was their
finding for the cause of the fire. They did add that they could change their finding if any new evidence came to light. When asked if an accelerant was used they confirmed that no evidence to this effect was found, but Cornwall Fire Service Investigator Mark Boeck told the jury the fire was “almost certainly” arson. He said there was “extremely strong support” for the theory that an unknown arsonist set a bin behind the hotel’s bar alight, possibly dousing the flames with an accelerant. If the experts can’t agree on this point, that casts some doubt, in my view, on their other findings. One of the other possible explanations ruled out by the experts was the fire being caused by a fluorescent light which was fixed underneath a plastic roof. They stated that this was a very safe form of lighting and, in their opinion, could not have started the fire. But I know of a number of very serious fires that have been caused by fluorescent lights both in the UK and abroad. One report into electrical fires in Finland states that “the light fitting that caused the most fires was fluorescent lights. Approximately two thirds of all fires caused by light fittings involved fluorescent lights.” The NHS has also issued the following warning: “NHS Estates have received numerous reports in the last few months of unwanted fire signals initiated by faulty/overheated ballasts in fluorescent light fittings. Minor fires have broken out and patient evacuation has been reported. This has the potential to become a serious incident.” Another warning was issued by Norfolk County Council following a fire in a fluorescent light that ignited the roof structure in a school. One of the other forensic experts referred to smoke detectors being better than the human nose at detecting smoke. Whilst I don’t profess to be an expert in this field, I know that some scientists say that there is no equivalent to the perception capacity of the scent-sensitive cells in the nose. Furthermore, some researchers openly state the impossibility of developing an electronic device that can fully duplicate the human nose. Edward J. Staples, an expert in electronic sensor technology, is one who openly admits this. Another scientist, Professor W James Harper, says: “An electronic nose is not a replacement for people – it is a supplement,” emphasising that the electronic nose can only be an adjunct. The search for answers in this case was not helped by a number of witnesses using Rule 22 when asked questions (under Rule 22 of the Coroners Rules, witnesses have the
PENHALLOW HOTEL FIRE “There was ‘extremely strong support’ for the theory that an unknown arsonist set a bin behind the hotel’s bar alight, possibly dousing the flames with an accelerant”
right not to answer questions, often after legal advice) Many of the hotel staff and the owners used this when asked questions such as: Did you check to see if it was a false alarm before calling the fire service? Were regular fire checks carried out? And was the fire alarm installed by a fully qualified engineer? This inevitably contributed to the uncertainty in this very complex case and given the evidence, I feel that the coroner was right to record an open verdict, because it was not proved beyond reasonable doubt that this fire was caused by a deliberate act.
Automatic fire detection
There was considerable debate about automatic fire detection and whether this would have changed the outcome of the fire. In a statement at the end of the inquest, the relatives said: “From the evidence, we were somewhat surprised to hear that the hotel was not compliant with the fire safety order of 2005, particularly regarding its requirements for smoke detectors in all bedrooms. We feel that the absence of these smoke detectors could have saved the lives of our loved ones.” It should be stated at this point that the hotel did have some automatic fire detection but it was not up to the L2 standard and only a small number of bedrooms had smoke detection. It was claimed that Cornwall Fire Service visited in July 2006 and gave verbal advice to the hotel manager, which
included the need to fit additional detectors in bedrooms, carry out a fire risk assessment, make sure the maintenance of fire safety equipment was up to date, change the Redlam Bolts to panic bolts and replace some glazing to be fire resisting. They also issued a notice to have the external fire escape repaired. It is difficult at this point to say for certain if a new fire alarm system would have made any material difference to the outcome, because there were so many failings in the structural fire safety and the fire travelled so quickly, that it would have needed a very early alarm and good structural fire safety to have changed the outcome to any great extent.
I have followed this fire from the very beginning because it typified many of the failings that I and many others have worked to prevent over the years. I think that everyone in the fire protection profession should acknowledge what a serious failure this was. Whether it was a deliberate act or an accident, we may never know which, it was certainly a disastrous failure of the system that was there to prevent such things from happening. Unfortunately, three people died as a result of these failings and we must never forget that. I acknowledge that this was a very complex case and I’m not convinced, on the information that I have seen, that it was a deliberate act. We may
John Hughes, son of Monica Hughes and brother of Peter Hughes, who both died in the fire, making a statement outside Truro Crown Court after the inquest JAMIE GRIERSON/PA WIRE/PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES
never know the full facts. I, for one, tried to help the investigation by offering my services free of charge, because I believed that the experience I gained in the USA on the ‘mapping’ process of fire investigation might help establish exactly where people were and what they did, to a realistic timeline, but this offer was turned down. I also tried to get a copy of the fire certificate under the Freedom of Information Act and this was also turned down, so I had to prepare my own plans based on people’s memory. Many of the people whom I spoke to felt totally traumatised by their experience and their lives will never be the same again. Following the Crimewatch reconstruction I wrote to the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall querying the timings which were shown. It took me six months to get any admission that there might have been a mistake, and this only came after a county councillor took up my request and wrote again to the chief constable. I also wrote to Sadiq Khan, the minister responsible at the Fire and Resilience Directorate (Communities and Local Government) expressing my concern about the fire and the inspection process. He replied: “How each fire and rescue service determines its inspection programme is a matter of local discretion, and again it would be inappropriate for ministers to comment.” Lastly, I think that we must have a better fire investigation process for serious fires like this, because no matter how well qualified individuals may be and what experience they may have, I don’t think that the process that was carried out during this fire does us any credit at all. To my mind simply ruling out accidental causes and saying that it was a deliberate act, because this is the only one left, is not the way that we should be investigating fires like this. Perhaps a public enquiry is now needed to get to the truth and I am pleased that the coroner is going to raise some of these fire safety concerns with the government.
Alan Cox is a fire and safety consultant. He has held senior fire safety posts in the public and private sector.
Published on Dec 19, 2010
Published on Dec 19, 2010
This article was originally published in the FSE Journal and dtails my investigations that I found when I researched this tragic fire.