Inquest Into Eastbourne Brothers
Verdicts of misadventure were recorded today into the deaths of two young brothers who died when a fierce fire swept through their makeshift den at home.
Seven-year-old Lewis and five-year-old Taylor Jenkins were found huddled together in a camp they made using duvets, sheets and a clothes airer under the stairs.
Their mother, Denise Goldsmith, 32, escaped the building through a window wearing just her night clothes before dialling 999 from a nearby phone box.
A three-day inquest heard that neighbours were forced to retreat from trying to save the boys amid intense heat, acrid smoke and fears of an imminent explosion.
The boys' bodies were retrieved by emergency teams from their hideout where a disposable lighter, tealight candles and an aerosol can were found.
Investigators said it was likely the boys started the fire themselves at their rented three-bedroom house in Milfoil Drive, Eastbourne, East Sussex, due to their access to lighting materials.
Taylor in particular was ``absolutely obsessed'' with fire and had been caught in the past setting paper alight upstairs at home, his mother said.
The discovery of an aerosol can was said to be ``highly relevant'' because the inquest heard that Taylor had been shown by a friend how to ignite a flame using one.
Days before the tragedy, the boys were at school when fire officers visited to give pupils a safety workshop about the dangers of playing with flames.
Fourteen disposable lighters were found at the house, along with matches, tealight candles, the boys' charred birth certificates and bottles of beer and vodka. Two smoke detectors were at the property but neither worked.
Post-mortem examinations on the brothers found that they both died from smoke inhalation following the blaze just after 3pm on October 4 2008.
The inquest, at Eastbourne Magistrates' Court, heard a depressing account of the boys' lives living in an environment with no routine.
The brothers routinely stayed up until the early hours, slept when and where they wanted around the house and were rude and disruptive.
Recording his verdicts, East Sussex coroner Alan Craze said he had considered but ruled out recording verdicts that their deaths were contributed to by neglect.
He said: ``There is, in my view, ample evidence of parenting failure and it's a sad fact that they were left entirely to their own devices.
``But I don't consider that the evidence discloses conduct on the part of the mother that would justify a conclusion that they were denied the basic necessities for life.''
Mr Craze described it as a ``harrowing case'' but that he believed that their school, social services and other agencies could have done no more for the boys.
Social services were attached to the family three months before the tragic fire following reports of domestic violence involving the boys' father, Stewart Jenkins, who is now in prison.
The family were facing eviction from their #550-a-month end-of-terrace home as rental arrears spiralled to more than #4,000.
During the inquest, questions were raised about the parenting skills of Ms Goldsmith who had binged on vodka with friends into the early hours on the day of the fire.
On the same day, ex-hairdresser Ms Goldsmith also had sex with a younger man in her kitchen while in an on-off relationship with someone else, the inquest heard.
More than an hour after the blaze, toxicology tests found she was approaching one-and-a-half times the legal drink-drive limit when her blood was tested at 4.30pm.
Toxicologist Ian Humphreys said back calculations suggested she would have been around four-and-a-half times the limit at 2.30am that morning.
Giving evidence, she agreed that she was ``not in a fit state'' to look after the boys on the day and conceded that they were ``beyond her control''.
Fire investigation officer Mark Hobbs, of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said Ms Goldsmith appeared to be suffering from heavy drinking and a late night.
He told the court: ``This may have compromised her ability to detect the fire and deal with it in its early stages.''
Ms Goldsmith, who left school at 16 and has never married, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and neglect of the children but prosecutors decided not to charge her in February 2009.
Her friend, Victoria Quicke, told the inquest: ``When Stewart went to prison, Denise hit rock bottom and started drinking a lot more. She couldn't handle the boys, so she turned to drink.''
Ms Goldsmith frequently broke down as she listened to distressing evidence of the final moments of her sons' lives and people's efforts to save them.
The day before the fire, she allowed Taylor and Lewis to skip school while she attended a meeting to arrange alternative housing for them.
They went on to visit McDonald's and Poundland, and in the evening she shared vodka at her house with friends, while the boys were left ``doing their own thing''.
By around 2am the following morning, some of her friends left, but further visits were paid to the house by a series of men, including her on-off boyfriend, Darren Haines.
The inquest was told that he became ``cross'' after finding another man, Connor Feeney, at the house, who Ms Goldsmith went on to have sex with in the kitchen.
Later in the day, after Mr Feeney had left, Ms Goldsmith told how she was downstairs searching for items of clothing when Taylor called out ``Mum''.
After a brief pause, she noticed flames. She said she tried to dampen the fire using her pink dressing gown but then eventually escaped through a window.
As smoke billowed and neighbours rushed to help, Ms Goldsmith dialled 999 from a nearby phone box at 3.06pm and the first fire appliance arrived seven minutes later.
Neighbour Shirley Parris said: ``All through the incident she was screaming, 'My babies, my babies' and she said they were under the stairs.
``I broke the window and thick, black smoke came out. I couldn't do anything. The smoke was so thick, the kitchen was so black.
``Denise got really, really hysterical. I thought to myself, I can't do anything. I thought she was going to try to get in so I pulled her away onto the green.''
Mr Craze said it is believed that Taylor and Lewis would have died within one or two minutes, saying that the ``heroic efforts'' of neighbours and firefighters would not have saved them.
Following the verdicts, Ms Goldsmith left court alongside a police officer without making comment.