Maidstone: Inquest Into Cannonball Death

20 January 2015, 16:08

Jurors at the inquest into the death of a "human cannonball" stuntman who died after being fired up to 40ft into the air at a daredevil show have returned a verdict of accidental death

The death of a "human cannonball'' who died after being fired into the air at a stunt show was an accident, an inquest jury has ruled.

Matthew Cranch, 24, suffered multiple injuries after a safety net intended to break his fall collapsed as he fell to the ground.

He had been fired from a lorry-mounted cannon during Scott May's Daredevil Stunt Show at the Kent County Showground in Detling on April 25 2011.

The two-day inquest, sitting at Archbishop's Palace, Maidstone, heard that a mechanism which triggered the release of the safety net was not properly set.

Tests carried out following the tragedy showed the mechanism could be unintentionally falsely closed, leading to the net dropping when the lorry recoiled upon firing of the cannon.

In footage shown at the hearing, one of Mr Cranch's colleagues was heard giving a "3, 2, 1'' countdown on the public address system before he shouted "fire''.

Mr Cranch could then be seen being propelled from the cannon amid a cloud of pyrotechnic smoke as the safety net in front of him suddenly collapsed.

Despite efforts by medics, he died at Maidstone Hospital. Toxicology tests on Mr Cranch proved negative for alcohol and drugs.

One expert, mechanical engineer Alex Grimes, tested the safety net trigger mechanism and found that when the latch was fully closed, the net could not be released.

But on a third occasion he engineered the mechanism so that it was falsely closed. On this occasion, the safety net did release when the vehicle recoiled as the cannon fired.

Pictures of the mechanism taken several months after the death of Mr Cranch showed a build-up of dirt and grease on it.

Mr Grimes said that dirt or grit could have impacted on the mechanism's performance, but he could not confirm whether this contributed to the failing or not.

A second expert, Charles Simmons-Jacobs, a specialist inspector in mechanical engineering, said it appeared the trigger had not been set "to the end of its travel''.

Stunt show employees, including Tommy Austin, who set up the trigger mechanism on the safety net on the day, told the inquest they were not aware the mechanism could be set in a falsely closed position.

Mr May said training involved employees watching senior colleagues, doing it themselves under supervision and then finally on their own.

Mr May, the owner and managing director of family-run Stunts UK Ltd, said the showpiece had been performed around 1,000 times with no issue.

He said: "Any faults that are found results in equipment being taken out and rectified and put back in the show.''

Tony Nicholls, chief mechanic at Stunts UK Ltd, said safety was a "top priority'' and if anyone voiced concerns about safety, a stunt would not go ahead until it had been put right.

Mr Nicholls, who fired Mr Cranch from the cannon, heard the click of the net release mechanism just after Mr Cranch was sent flying from the lorry-mounted cannon.

Mr Nicholls, who has no formal mechanical qualifications but has years of experience, was not responsible for setting the trigger mechanism on the day of Mr Cranch's death.

But when asked how he would ensure that the lug engaged with the latch, he told the inquest: "For me, it was the noise, like a car door when you hear it has been engaged.''

Whenever he set the mechanism, Mr Nicholls said he would do so using force "to make sure it was in every time''.

He said the trigger release mechanism, which was partly in a sealed unit, was routinely pressure washed, lubricated using WD40 and checked for fatigue.

Mr Nicholls said there were equipment checks before each performance and more in-depth maintenance during breaks between performances.

Asked whether he had ever encountered problems with the net release trigger mechanism not setting properly, he replied: "No, never.''

At the hearing were Mr Cranch's parents Michael and Pauline and his sister Eleanor, as well as Mr May, and representatives from Maidstone Borough Council.