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17 March 2011, 15:51
The deaths of two railwaymen following a fire and blast beneath the Thames during construction of the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link were an accident, an inquest jury ruled today.
Locomotive shunter Darren Brown, 40, died at the scene while train driver Douglas Lynch, 50, died four days later while being treated at a specialist burns unit.
The men were involved in the construction of the second phase of the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link, connecting Cheriton, near Folkestone, to St Pancras station in central London.
The pair were transporting a Newag locomotive carrying materials through one of two 2.5km tunnels linking Thurrock in Essex and Swanscombe in Kent when a fire and explosion took place on August 16, 2005.
Part of the gearbox broke up and that sprayed out an aerosol of oil which ignited, leading to a catastrophic fireball lasting up to four seconds.
The force of the explosion was so great that pieces of metal blasted through the walls of the vehicle, the three-and-a-half week inquest at Gravesend Adult Education Centre was told.
Jurors heard from a series of workers critical of the engine for not being ``fit for purpose''.
Numerous complaints were also made by drivers about it over-heating and jumping out of gear, particularly when carrying heavy loads up steep inclines.
Drivers and shunters reported them not being powerful enough but staff were wary about complaining because of ``an atmosphere of fear and intimidation'', the inquest was told.
Locomotive 131, which was driven by Mr Lynch when the fire and blast occurred, had the highest number of complaints made about it by workers, jurors heard.
Officials at Newag blamed drivers for exceeding the 30 km-per-hour speed limit and rejected suggestions that the engines had difficulty getting up steep gradients.
Mr Brown's body was not found until some hours later and was lying around 500 metres away from the 80-metre long locomotive.
A post-mortem examination on the father-of-two found he died of multiple injuries including flash burns and a severe head injury while Mr Lynch, also a father-of-two, later died of severe burns.
Mr Lynch, from Folkestone, and Mr Brown, from Sale, Greater Manchester, were employed by sub-contractors working for ACT Joint Venture on the project.
Mr Lynch would drive the diesel locomotives as they pulled the wagons while Mr Brown would be at the front and act as his eyes and ears when the locomotive was pushing them.
Colleagues described Mr Lynch as a ``first-class'' locomotive driver who was ``safety-conscious'' and would not exceed the speed limit.
Coroner Roger Hatch expressed his sympathies to the families of the dead men.
Nobody else witnessed the blast but fellow workers Kevin Rix and Michael Moore were the first to come across the blazing locomotive.
During his evidence, Mr Rix described how he discovered Mr Lynch's severely burnt body lying on the ground nearby.
He said: ``He just looked like some plastic bags on the walkway. I just couldn't believe that it was him.
``He was totally black, he was severely burnt. I knew it was really serious. His face was jet black. He had no hair on him at all.''
Mr Rix said Mr Lynch, who was known as Dougie, was conscious but ``in a lot of pain''.
He told jurors that, after radioing for help, he instructed Mr Moore to stay with Mr Lynch while he went looking for Mr Brown.
``When I looked into the locomotive I just couldn't imagine that someone was going to be alive in there,'' he said.
He said he could not walk down the tunnel any further due to the ``acrid'' smoke so he instead tried to fight the fire which was still raging in the locomotive with some extinguishers he found nearby.
Mr Lynch and Mr Brown, who both had years of experience, had taken over the locomotive from two colleagues after lunch and had been warned it seemed to have a mechanical problem as it had already broken down twice that morning.
The last that was known of the pair was that they were given permission to enter the southbound tunnel at 6.29pm before their locomotive was then seen entering it at 6.36pm.
Some minutes later, Mr Rix's locomotive tried to make radio contact with the men but could not get through and soon after that smoke was seen coming out of the Kent end of the tunnel, the inquest heard.
At 6.47pm, Mr Rix's locomotive was given permission to proceed into the tunnel with caution to find out what had happened.
Jurors heard that the explosion happened at some point between 6.29pm and 6.47pm.
Outside the hearing, My Lynch's widow, Denise Lynch, said she was ``gutted'' at the verdicts.
Fighting back tears, she said: ``I just can't believe our justice system.
``I'm absolutely gutted. Over three weeks we have listened to colleagues of Dougie say that there was bad maintenance.2
Mr Brown's brother, Colin Brown, said: ``You don't expect your brother to go out to work and not come back home.''