Inquest Hears How Firefighters Died

An inquest has heard that two firefighters died because a ''massive escalation'' in a blaze in a high-rise flat caused temperatures to reach hundreds of degrees, making it impossible for them to escape.

Conditions were so bad that it was not known at first that Alan Bannon, 38, and James Shears, 35, were missing after they were among the first to reach the blaze in the 15-storey building Shirley Towers, Southampton on April 6 2010.

It was three-quarters of an hour before colleagues could reach the two men who were found unconscious in the bedroom area of the ninth-floor flat.

Southampton Coroner Keith Wiseman said Mr Bannon was pronounced dead at the scene and Mr Shears died later in Southampton General Hospital where attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

The inquest at Southampton Civic Centre was told that at about teatime that day resident of Flat 72, Karl Hoffman, was vacuum cleaning and placed a curtain in the bowl of an up-lighting lamp.

Later his wife Kirsty, who was five months pregnant, turned on the light and the couple, who have a young child, started to smell burning.

By about 8pm the cotton curtain caught alight and Mr Hoffman tried to extinguish it using a soft drink and then his polo short. But when the fire became worse the couple fled the flat with their child and a neighbour called 999 at 8.04pm, leading to the block of flats being evacuated.

Mr Bannon and Mr Shears, known by the call-sign Red Two, were the first of two two-man teams to arrive at the property. The other two firefighters, Keith Holland and Liam Ryan, known by the call-sign Red One, were soon beaten back by the increasing strength of the fire and escaped under ''considerable physical distress''.

The firefighters wore breathing apparatus because of the smoke and fumes, the inquest heard.

Mr Wiseman said it was several minutes before it was realised that Red Two were trapped because their colleagues believed they had left by another staircase.

''There was a sudden, massive escalation in the fire itself and, in particular, the temperatures,'' he said.

''This led to the first two (Red One) to be just able to leave the flat through some stairs in some pain and physical distress.

"It was initially thought that Red Two had gone back down stairs but there was nothing further the other two men could have done, due to their own levels of physical distress.

''It wasn't clear that Red Two was missing but after that, strenuous efforts were made to find them.

"Conditions were so bad they were beaten back for a considerable time until the conditions improved, I think, of their own accord. By then access to the two bedrooms was made and the bodies of the two men were found.''

Mr Wiseman said any delay in recovering the two firefighters from the building was unlikely to have made any difference to the tragic outcome because of the intensity of the inferno.

The unconscious pair were found at 9.40pm, three-quarters of an hour after they became unaccounted for.

''It is highly likely they had become completely overcome by conditions in the flat by 9pm, and the temperature was many hundreds of degrees centigrade,'' Mr Wiseman said.

The two victims were full-time firefighters based at St Mary's fire station in Southampton.

Father-of-two Mr Shears, known as Jim, was from Poole in Dorset and was a firefighter for seven years.

Mr Bannon, of Southampton, was a fireman for eight-and-a-half years and lived with his wife Charlotte and their five-year-old daughter Abigail.

After separate investigations into the deaths, Hampshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive both said they would not launch prosecutions in connection with the tragedy.

The inquest is expected to last four weeks.

Mr Wiseman said the jury's job is to look at the events in context and decide whether procedures were properly followed. He explained that Shirley Towers has an unusual ''scissor'' construction which meant each flat is over several floors and entrance and fire escapes on different levels.

In statements from the families of the dead men, each also asked for help from the jury to find out what happened that evening and whether the men were properly trained to deal with such a complex fire and whether procedures for the use of breathing apparatus was understood.

Mr Bannon's brother-in-law Keith Trott told the inquest that his loved one was a dedicated family man with a thirst for adventure who enjoyed Scouting, caving and diving. He said that Mr Bannon ''never took unnecessary risks''.

He said: ''We need you, the jury, to help us understand the events of the 6th April that led to Alan and Jim's death.''

Mr Shear's brother Gary said the biochemistry graduate and judo expert was loved by anyone who knew him and that he had always wanted to be a firefighter.

''He was not a saint, and he would not want to be portrayed that way, but he was our hero in every way.''

The jury was given a demonstration of the equipment the men were using when they died, including the function of the breathing apparatus.

Speaking before the inquest, John Bonney, chief officer for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, said the force still mourns the loss. He said he hopes the hearing will help the service understand what went wrong, and pledged to make any improvements highlighted by the coroner.

''It is with great sadness that we are here today for the inquest into the deaths of our two brave colleagues James Shears and Alan Bannon,'' he said.

''These two firefighters tragically lost their lives whilst fighting a fire in order to protect the lives of others.

''These are difficult days for the families of both Jim and Alan and their colleagues. Our thoughts continue to be with them at this time and will be throughout the inquest.

''As a professional fire and rescue service, we are deeply saddened to be here today but we are committed to understanding what happened on that evening.

"Since the incident we have been undertaking our own investigation as well as commissioning independent research from London Fire Brigade. We have also worked closely with Hampshire Constabulary and the Health and Safety Executive.

''Indeed as part of the ongoing investigation, the HSE and Hampshire Constabulary have confirmed that they will not be taking any action or bringing criminal charges against the service or any of its personnel.

''We are hopeful that the inquest will bring greater understanding and clarity for all those involved, but also a degree of closure for the families and an end to the formal investigatory process.

''The deaths of Jim and Alan have been a devastating loss.

"Neither I, nor the service, will forget the courage and fortitude they showed on that night to defend the lives of others.

"This tragedy serves to remind us of the risks to which firefighters expose themselves day in and day out, every time they respond to an emergency call.

''The loss of our colleagues will forever remain in our thoughts but we feel that our best tribute to Jim and Alan has been to carry on providing the very best service that we can to the people of Hampshire.

"We have already made some changes in the fire service as to the way we tackle such incidents in high-rise buildings and we will continue to learn from this tragic incident.

''If over the following weeks the proceedings reveal that we need to make further changes, we will do so.''

The jury is due to visit the flats where the fire happened, with the inquest continuing tomorrow.