Afghanistan death tents were set for safety checks, inquest hears

Private Dean Hutchinson

Private Rob Wood

First published in News
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Fire safety checks were to be carried out on a tent in which two British soldiers died in a blaze, an inquest heard today.

Private Dean Hutchinson, 23, based at Hullavington Barracks, and Private Rob Wood, 28, lost their lives when flames swept through a logistical centre at the Helmand province HQ in the early hours of February 14 2011.

The soldiers, who served with the Royal Logistic Corps, were sleeping in the tented office so they could respond more quickly when vital supplies arrived at Camp Bastion.

Witnesses have described smelling smoke coming from the area housing a 32in flatscreen TV, boiler and fridge and seeing flames coming from cabling leading to the air conditioning unit.

The inquest in Salisbury has heard that members of the Transport Troop were stationed in an 18ft by 24ft tent, which shortly before the fire had been extended by 50 per cent to include members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

The Transport Troop were also due to take over the neighbouring tent, which had recently been vacated by the Quartermaster.

Captain Timothy Fitzgerald, who was Privates Wood and Hutchinson's commanding officer in the Transport Troop, told of an intention to carry out a fire risk assessment once they had moved into the second tent.

"From my point of view it made sense to do the fire risk assessment when we pushed through (into the Quartermaster's tent) and the sleeping arrangements were changed," Capt Fitzgerald said.

"Either way the whole dynamics would have changed and I saw that as my opportunity to update assessments.

"I knew that when something changed I needed to do a risk assessment."

Capt Fitzgerald said there was a smoke detector on the ceiling of the tent but he did not know who was responsible for ensuring it was in working order.

He told Wiltshire and Swindon coroner David Ridley that the Troop's fire officer, Lance Corporal David Williams, had raised with him the issue of checking the smoke detector.

"He was told not to test it. The direction that he explained to me was that the red light should be flashing and that's as far as it went," Capt Fitzgerald said.

"We were not told if the detector went into a mainline system or made a beep or something else."

He added: "We didn't interfere with it in any way but make sure the red light was flashing.

"It had been inferred by L/Cpl Williams that if the red light was flashing it was working but I didn't know who told him that."

The inquest also heard that the smoke detector was positioned close to the air conditioning unit on the ceiling.

The coroner asked whether the close proximity of the smoke detector to the air conditioning system caused any problems.

"Probably, yes," Capt Fitzgerald replied and added that he did not think anything was done to move it.

Capt Fitzgerald also told the inquest that he "did not specifically remember" seeing the 'daisy-chaining' of electrical extension sockets in the tent, which was forbidden by commanding officers.

He described seeing the fridge, boiler and TV plugged into the four-way domestic power unit in the "welfare area" of the tent, with the fourth socket used by members of the REME to power a laptop in the newly-created extension.

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

Pte Hutchinson, from Spennymoor, County Durham, was a driver and had seven years' service with the Army.

Captain Lloyd Hamilton, of The Royal Engineers, gave evidence to the inquest as an expert witness about portable appliance testing (PAT) in Camp Bastion.

He said that soldiers arriving at the base were given a presentation about the dangers of overloading electrical sockets and shown photographs of a fire caused by it.

The inquest also heard evidence from Staff Sergeant Paul Swann who first raised the alarm when he saw the fire coming from the tent.

He said it took between 20 and 30 minutes from the blaze being seen to the fire brigade arriving at the scene.

He described what happened after he ran to the burning tent.

"The fire was raging. It was too late... it was already up," Sgt Swann told the hearing.

"There was thick black smoke. For a moment I stood there thinking 'What the hell's this?'. Then logic kicks. I was standing there and there is nothing I could do.

"It was unfortunate that by the time we spotted the fire it was already truly under way."

Sgt Swann said he sent one soldier from his unit to ring Camp Bastion's fire brigade but he quickly returned saying the phone number was not working.

Sgt Swann said that he then ran into his unit's HQ to find the number, first looking on the fire safety board.

"There's a lot of information on the fire board but not the number for the fire brigade," he said.

"The fire board had 20 pages of explanations about fires but not the actual number for the fire brigade."

"At that moment I stood there thinking how stupid is this that I couldn't get a number for the bloody fire brigade.

"I got a bit jittery about finding this number for the fire brigade and I was shouting at people that we needed this number but then I saw it on the back wall."

He said that Corporal Kendall rang the 222 emergency number which at first was engaged but then he got through to report the blaze.

Sgt Swann said he ran back to the tent and saw a clearly shocked and injured Lance Corporal Sikeli Ratu, who had escaped the blaze.

"He was obviously in shock and I asked was there anybody in there and he said 'Hutch and Woody'," Sgt Swann said.

He said that since the tragedy there have been a lot of changes made at Camp Bastion and on his most recent tour to Afghanistan between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of his day was taken up with health and safety issues.

The inquest continues tomorrow.

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