Ewan Williamson death: Fire service admits failure

Ewan Williamson died tackling a fire at the Balmoral Bar.  Picture: Comp/Ian Rutherford

Ewan Williamson died tackling a fire at the Balmoral Bar. Picture: Comp/Ian Rutherford

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THE mother and sister of tragic firefighter Ewan Williamson wept in court as they heard about the recovery of his body from a blazing pub as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) admitted a series of health and safety

failures.

The 35-year-old died on July 12, 2009 when he became trapped in a toilet while battling leaping flames at the Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road.

Colleagues desperately tried to rescue him from the smoke-logged building as the floor began to give way on to the blazing basement, where the careless disposal of a

cigarette in an office is believed to have sparked the fire.

His death has had a “devastating effect” on his mother, Linda, and older sisters Rebecca and Rachel, with whom he had a close relationship, as well as partner Lynsey Baird, with whom he shared a home in Barnton.

Mr Williamson – the first firefighter in the history of the Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die in the line of duty – was described as a “dedicated and reliable member of the team” whose loss has been felt keenly by all of his colleagues.

In a heartbreaking twist, Mr Williamson was on annual leave at the time but had offered to do overtime to make up for a shortage of staff.

His family was in court yesterday to hear the result of a five-year battle for justice for the brave firefighter, who had been a member of the Green Watch at Tollcross fire station since 2003. At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the SFRS admitted breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act, including failing to train firefighters to maintain close personal contact.

SFRS also admitted it failed to have in place effective systems of radio communication and implementation of procedures for firefighters using breathing apparatus at the time.

The court, presided over by Lord Uist, heard how Mr Williamson entered the burning building with a colleague to find the fire which was belching out thick black smoke into neighbouring houses, causing around 20 people to be evacuated.

Iain McSporran, advocate depute, said: “The heat had become unbearable and in their view it was too dangerous to continue.”

On a second sortie, the team became separated due to the poor visibility and Mr Williamson turned left into the men’s toilets – directly above the fire – where he became trapped.

His colleague thought Mr Williamson was right behind but when he failed to appear the team radioed him.

Mr Williamson sent a radio reply saying: “I’ll be there in a minute boss, I’m stuck. I think I’m stuck in the toilet.”

However he became more agitated and said he was unable to open the toilet door.

He was told to activate his distress signal unit but no-one could hear it in the building.

The court heard how his comrades desperately tried to find him in the smoke-logged building, exhibiting great selflessness and bravery.

The firefighters managed to get to a door but could not open it as the floor began to give way beneath their feet and they were forced to move.

Eventually the firefighters were able to hack their way through a boarded-up window – which had been reinforced with a metal grille and security bars – where they found Mr Williamson lying on the floor.

A postmortem later found he had died from injuries sustained in a building fire. He was likely to have been dead for some time before his colleagues found him.

Mr McSporran said: “Only those who have encountered and confronted that kind of environment can truly appreciate the courage required to enter into a burning building, not once but twice, and the debt which we the public owe those whose job involves demonstrating that level of courage.”

“The loss of Ewan Williamson, who demonstrated exactly the courage and commitment demanded of this job, has been hard for his family and loved ones to bear, and hard on those immediate colleagues who were there that night, as well as members of fire services across the country and beyond.”

SFRS has pledged to learn from the tragic incident, which was described as “an isolated failing by an organisation with an excellent safety record.”.

Mr McSporran added: “The passage of time since the terrible events of July 12, 2009 has done nothing to diminish the sense of shock felt within the local community, the country at large and the firefighter colleagues of the dead man across Great Britain in particular.

“It is perhaps a measure of care taken by the Fire and Rescue Service to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees engaged in what is inevitably high risk employment, that the death of a single firefighter is capable of producing such a strong reaction.”

Defence counsel Peter Gray QC said: “In my submission the most proximate and direct cause of the death of Ewan Williamson was the wholly unforeseen collapse of the floor or buckling of the floor.

“Very quickly the buckle increased to such an extent that part of the floor collapsed.

“Nobody knew or could reasonably have known about the structure of the floor and that it did not comply with building regulations and therefore

provided, in relation to fire, a hidden hazard.”

Lord Uist deferred sentence for SFRS, which could face a fine, until March 20 so that he could give full consideration to the matter.

The guilty plea was welcome by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has supported Mr Williamson’s family in its pursuit of justice.

Denise Christie, of the FBU in Edinburgh, said: “I would like to thank and pay tribute to all those members who have continued to work professionally throughout this period.

“It’s been a very difficult time for all those involved and I hope that this can now be the start for everyone to move on without the anxiety of a court case hanging over them.

“Ewan was a brilliant firefighter, a great friend to all at Tollcross Green Watch and throughout the fire service and beyond. He will never be

forgotten and will always be in our thoughts.”

And Stephen Thomson, Scottish FBU Secretary, said he hoped the decision would help those closest to Ewan to get on with their lives.

“The FBU welcome the decision by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to plead guilty today and we hope that this will help Ewan’s family move on with their lives,” he said.

“Clearly when we see the full judgement on March 20 the FBU will comment in detail, but it is important that lessons are learned and we never find ourselves back here in the future.”

The SFRS took over from the eight regional fire services in 2013, absorbing the Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service which is now its eastern region.

‘System is not working’

While I am pleased that the SFRS has accepted its responsibility, it is incredible that it has taken more than five-and-a-half years to get to this point.

The admission that mistakes were made is an important first step and the fire service must now show it is ready to learn from them.

Ewan’s family and his fellow firefighters have been failed by a system that is not working. They have been unable to get answers to the most basic questions.

The current fatal accident inquiry (FAI) system is slow, lacks transparency and excludes families. Five years ago, a review of FAI legislation by Lord Cullen made recommendations on reform but these have yet to be implemented.

This lack of action inspired Patricia Ferguson MSP to introduce proposals for a Member’s Bill to give families a real say in proceedings and to ensure that recommendations to improve safety at work are followed through. While these come too late to help Ewan’s family, I will be supporting them to ensure that others can rely on a system that is sensitive to their needs.

Sarah Boyack MSP

TIMELINE OF THE TRAGEDY

July 2009: Ewan Williamson dies after becoming trapped in a toilet while tackling a basement fire at the Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road. Around 20 people were rescued as firefighters fought to extinguish the flames. Mr Williamson had joined the service in 2003 and is the only firefighter in the history of the Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die tackling a blaze.

July 2009: Mr Williamson’s funeral is held in Edinburgh, with a fire engine led by area manager John Dickie carrying his coffin the short distance from Tollcross fire station along past the fire brigade HQ at Lauriston Place. An official investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death is under way.

March 2012:

The family of Mr Williamson announces it is to raise an action for damages in the Court of Session against the firefighter’s former employers, Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service board. The family claims fatal mistakes were made on the night and questions raised regarding what went wrong remain unanswered. The official investigation into what happened is yet to be made public.

April 2013: Criminal proceedings are launched against the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in connection with Mr Williamson’s death.

November 2013: Prosecutors bring charges at the High Court in Glasgow. The service faces three charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act, including a claim that there was a failure to prioritise Mr Williamson’s rescue.

February 2015: The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service admits health and safety breaches in connection with Mr Williamson’s death.

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