Care home facing massive fine after inadequate fire safety precautions led to fatal blaze

Inadequate fire safety precautions led to the death of an 87-year-old widow in her smoke-filled flat after a raging inferno engulfed the roof of a block of retirement apartments, a court had heard.

The blaze, which claimed the life of Irene Cockerton from west London, swept through the loft of Gibson Court, Hinchley Wood, in a matter of minutes because there were no compartmental walls to check its progress, it was revealed at Guildford Court Court on Friday .

The fire was accelerated by a build-up of cooking grease caused by the kitchen vents of the flats, which opened into the roof space instead of through outside walls, the court was told.

Poor staff training in emergency exit procedures also put the lives of Mrs Cockerton’s 22 fellow residents and their fire-fighting rescuers in peril, the hearing heard.

Now, Firstport Retirement Property Services Ltd which ran the building are facing hundreds of thousand pounds in fines and costs after pleading guilty to four charges of breaching health and safety regulations.

In a prosecution brought by Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, the company, which changed its name from Peverel Management Services Ltd, was warned by a judge to brace itself for hefty financial penalties.

‘Risk of serious injury – or death’

Judge Stephen Climie, who heard an outline of the case today (March 31), said he would announce his sentence next week.

“What happened was a tragedy in which not only did Mrs Cockerton lose her life, but others were badly affected by what happened,” said Bernard Thorogood, counsel for the county fire and rescue service.

He said the dead woman’s married daughter would not attend the court case because she could not bear having to listen to the harrowing details of what happened six years ago in 2011.

The four-count indictment admitted by Firstport covered a host of fire safety precaution failings by the Hampshire-based company, including:

  • Omitting to carry out a suitable fire risk assessment which placed Mrs Cockerton and others in danger of death and serious injury from fire
  • Significant breaches in the integrity of roof space compartmentalisation which increased the spread of the flames
  • Greasy vapours and deposits from kitchens increased the danger of a blaze spreading
  • Failing to put in place a proper evacuation procedure in the event of a fire, particularly in view of the vulnerability of residents.
  • Omitting to act on warnings given earlier by people who had carried out past inspections and allowing the condition of the roof space fire curtains to fall into disrepair
  • Area and house managers not given satisfactory training – a failure which placed one or more persons at risk of death and injury in case of fire.

The court was told the fire started on September 30, 2011, in a neighbouring flat to the one occupied by Mrs Cockerton, previously from Acton, West London, who lived on the first floor of the building.

Mr Thorogood said proper fire safety measures should have halted the progress of the fire for between 30 minutes to an hour.

But, he said, the flames spread within a matter of just 15 minutes: “It is a matter of very great concern,” he said.

He said the fact that kitchen vents led into the roof space instead of through outside walls, causing a build up of grease which fuelled the spread of the fire.

“The grease deposits were combustible,” said Mr Thorogood. “The roof was ablaze while people on the ground floor were going about their business.”

When the alarm was raised, he said, 22 residents were evacuated but tragically Mrs Cockerton died from smoke inhalation. Her body was found inside a wardrobe in her room.

“Residents were at risk of serious injury and death,” said Mr Thorogood, who added the rescuers also put their lives at risk

‘Unblemished record’

Mark Watson, for the company, said: “Nothing I can say can in any way diminish the loss suffered by Mrs Cockerton’s family.”

He said that Gibson Court was the only one of his client’s 1,500 buildings where the walls had not reached up into the roof space.

Mr Watson said since the tragedy, Firstport had carried out major improvements to remedy all the matters complained of.

“This is a company that is well run and mindful of its responsibilities,” he said.

Mr Watson said, apart from this tragedy, his clients had an “unblemished record”.

But, as far as fire safety training and evacuation procedures were concerned, he conceded there had been failings here, as well.

“The company accepts that more should have been done,” added Mr Watson.

Judge Climie said he had yet to decide what the financial penalties would be but he said it would be in the order of “hundreds of thousands of pounds”.