Fire that killed four children caused by unextinguished cigarette, inquest told

Fire (PA Archive)
17:45pm, Thu 12 Nov 2020
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Four young children died in a house blaze after a carelessly discarded cigarette caused a “flashover” fire in a bedroom, an inquest has heard.

South Staffordshire Coroner Andrew Haigh was told glass consistent with an ashtray was found melted into the springs of a mattress following the blaze in February 2019.

Siblings Riley Holt, eight, Keegan Unitt, six, Tilly Rose Unitt, four, and three-year-old Olly Unitt died in the blaze in Sycamore Lane, Stafford.

Stafford house fire (PA Archive)

The children’s mother, Natalie Unitt, told Thursday’s inquest that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and could not remember what she did after the fire broke out.

Her partner Christopher Moulton, the father of three of the children, also gave evidence at the inquest, saying he believed the fire had started on a landing.

Among five witnesses called by the coroner was lead investigator Leigh Richards, of West Midlands Fire Service.

Answering questions from Mr Haigh, he told the inquest that sources other than carelessness with smoking materials had been ruled out.

Confirming that four cigarette butts had been found in window casements in the lounge of the house, Mr Richards said: “It was quite obvious that the adult occupants within the property were smokers.

“There was a significant number of carelessly discarded cigarettes in and around the property on the ground floor.

Stafford house fire (PA Archive)

“Externally, outside the kitchen window there were in excess of 100 discarded cigarettes. Of significant note … within the recess of the left-hand (window) casement when looking from inside the lounge, there was a single discarded cigarette butt.

“That had not been stubbed out in my opinion and had been left to burn on its own. There was evidence within the lounge of a number of cigarettes that littered the carpet against the skirting boards.”

Detailing what he had found in the room where he believed the fire had started, Mr Richards added: “Examination of the master bedroom indicated there was a blue glass ashtray on the carpet adjacent to the bed. Within that ashtray there were, I believe, a couple of cigarettes still present.

“I also found remnants of what I believe to be glass on the bed which had been melted within the springs of the mattress.

“It was glass consistent with what you would expect to see with a glass ashtray.”

Asked how he believed the blaze had spread, Mr Richards told the coroner: “The fire in my opinion developed within the bedroom and as it developed, the room went ‘full flashover’ – which is essentially where everything within the room becomes involved in fire.

“It is my considered opinion that this fire was caused by carelessness with cigarettes.”

Stafford house to be demolished (PA Archive)

Detective Inspector Alan Lyford, of Staffordshire Police, said a file had been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, who had considered several offences but had deemed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone in relation to the fire.

Recording narrative verdicts that the children had died of smoke inhalation following a fire caused by an unextinguished cigarette, the coroner said: “I realise giving evidence in circumstances like this is distressing for all, but particularly for Mr Moulton and Miss Unitt.”

Accepting evidence that the fire started on bedding, the coroner added: “Mr Moulton has suggested that the fire may have been caused by where the boiler is on the landing of the property. I do not accept that.

“Mr Richards has clearly indicated why the boiler is not the cause of this fire.”

In his evidence to the court, Mr Moulton said he had been woken by the fire and had tried to get to his children.

He also said he could not remember how he had suffered burns to his hands before escaping from a bedroom window.

Miss Unitt said she had woken because she could feel a “heaviness” on her chest, and had also first noticed the fire on the landing area.

The inquest was told that the couple had previously been advised by social care with regard to not smoking in their house, which has now been demolished.

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