Coroner Criticises MoD Over Hampshire Soldier's Death

22 May 2014, 19:27

A coroner has criticised the Ministry of Defence for a series of failures over the deaths of a Hampshire soldier and his colleague in a fire at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

Privates Rob Wood, 28, from Marchwood and Dean Hutchinson, 23, were killed when a blaze swept through their tent at the military base in Afghanistan three years ago.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroner David Ridley listed seven ``contributory factors'' in the deaths of the two Royal Logistic Corps soldiers during his lengthy narrative conclusion following the 10-day hearing in Salisbury.

Mr Ridley described the failures by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as either ``systemic failures'' or ``failures'' and said he would be making a preventing further deaths report.

The MoD now has 56 days to reply in writing, giving details of actions that have been taken or are proposed to be taken, or an explanation as to why no action will be taken to prevent future similar deaths.

The family of Pte Hutchinson, from Spennymoor, County Durham condemned the Army's ``incompetence'' and said he should not have lost his life in the way he did.

And Pte Wood's family, from Bexhill on Sea, Sussex said they hoped the MoD had ``learned lessons''.

The Army said changes have been made since the incident.

``The coroner has identified a number of failings that contributed to their tragic deaths for which we are very sorry,'' a spokesman said.

``A number of improvements have been made to fire safety procedures since 2011 but we will study the coroner's recommendations to ensure everything is being done to reduce the risk to personnel and prevent future incidents.''

The inquest heard the two soldiers were sleeping in the canvas Transport Troop tent so they could respond more quickly when vital supplies arrived at Camp Bastion

Eyewitnesses described smelling smoke coming from the area housing a 32in flat-screen TV, boiler and fridge, and seeing flames coming from cabling leading to the air conditioning unit.

But there were delays in alerting the military fire brigade because soldiers at the scene did not know the emergency 222 number.

By the time firefighters arrived at the scene shortly before 6am on February 14 2011, the blaze had taken hold of the tent.

Investigators concluded the fire started in the vicinity of the electrical appliances and quickly spread, igniting combustible materials stored nearby.

And Mr Ridley said he was satisfied the battery-operated smoke detector was not working.

The inquest heard that both senior commanders and fire safety officers did not know the soldiers were sleeping on duty during night shifts.

The ``unwritten rule'' for the troop was that the duty non-commissioned officer should have remained awake while the other soldiers slept.

Had they known, the fire risk assessment for the tent would have had to have reflected it, with separate sleeping areas and an unobstructed rear exit.

Infrastructure contractor KBR was responsible for the maintenance of fire alarms, hard wired smoke detectors and the four-way blue domestic power units.

However, they were not responsible for maintaining battery-powered smoke detectors outside of the accommodation blocks or any appliances plugged into the power units.

But there may have been confusion about who was responsible for checking the smoke detectors in the tent, with the troop's ``fire NCO'' only carrying out visual checks.

Experts who examined the scene concluded that the TV, fridge and boiler were plugged into a four-way extension socket.

Mr Ridley said he was satisfied the fire started due to overloading because of the failure of either the wiring inside the extension socket or its lead.

``What is clear is that the boiler, fridge and the television together exceeded the relative ampage of the extension block by about 20%,'' he said.

``This would have caused the wiring either inside the block or the lead to degrade as a result of heat generated until it failed, resulting in arcing and sparks.

``Those sparks, I am satisfied, ignited the combustible products stored under the table and that area provided a constant fire source to ignite the tent.''

In addition electrical items in the Transport Troop tent had not been PAT tested, although regulations stated it should have been done.

The hearing also heard that in January 2011 members of the Transport Troop extended the rear of their 18ft by 24ft tent by 50% to house members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

By doing so they filled the space set aside for a fire break and joined it to the adjacent Troop's Quartermaster tent.

Mr Ridley said there were ``missed opportunities'' to carry out a new fire risk assessment, which should have been done as soon as the extension was built because it was longer than 27ft.

He listed his series of conclusions: ``The systemic failure by the chain of command to communicate the occurrence of sleeping on duties at night to key personnel, such as the unit fire safety officer, as safety measures associated with this practice to all Transport Troop personnel.

``The failure to police the occurrence of sleeping on duties at night through the use of random checks.

``The failure to effectively check the working functionality of the nine-volt smoke detector located inside the tent where the fire started, resulting in it not being in working order at the time of the fire.

``The systemic failure to provide effective training, especially to fire NCOs, to identify the potential risk of the overloading of sockets and extension blocks.

``The failure to rectify the error in the December 2010 fire risk assessment, when it became known that sleeping was taking place within the tent in December 2010.

``The failure to request a fresh fire risk assessment following the structural alterations that took place in January 2011.

``The absence of the Transport Troop tent from the theatre asset register.''

Pte Wood, known as Woody, had become a father to a boy, Noah, with his partner Becky Day shortly before he died. He was a driver port operator, posted to 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, and lived in Marchwood.

Pte Hutchinson was a driver and had seven years' service with the Army.