Fire chief: I was right to forbid shaft rescue
THE fire commander who halted a rescue attempt on a dying mother stuck down a disused mine shaft admitted yesterday that fellow firefighters were unhappy at his decision.
But he said nothing could have been done differently.
Group Commander Paul Stewart was in charge of attempts to rescue 44-year-old lawyer Alison Hume, who had fallen 60ft down a mine shaft in Galston, Ayrshire, in July 2008.
When he took control of the rescue Mr Stewart refused to allow a paramedic to be lowered down the shaft to treat Mrs Hume.
He also banned 18 firefighters at the scene from using rope equipment to lift Mrs Hume out of the shaft.
Giving evidence to a Fatal Accident Inquiry yesterday, Mr Stewart was barracked by members of Mrs Hume's family as he said health and safety rules led him to halt rescue efforts.
Mr Stewart, who has 17 years' service, explained why he stopped the paramedic going into the hole, even though he was harnessed up and ready to go.
He said: "I spoke to the paramedic and asked him some questions, if he was trained to work at height, or in confined spaces or familiar with any fire and rescue kit.
"The answer to all of those questions was that he was not trained in any of them.
"I explained to them as the officer in charge I could not let him access an area like that without appropriate training or equipment.
"It was not my intention to allow any more resources into that shaft."
Mr Stewart, of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, had arrived at the scene of the accident to take care of media duties. But when he found himself the senior officer at the top of the disused mine shaft, the 38-year-old decided to take command of firefighters who were poised to mount a rescue mission.
Mrs Hume had fallen into the pit in the darkness as she took a short-cut home from a night out. She was discovered by her daughter, Jane, then aged 17, who went to look for her and heard her cries from the pit. Mrs Hume appeared lifeless when she was eventually brought to the surface seven hours later.
Mr Stewart was asked about a "debriefing session" among the fire crew about three weeks after Mrs Hume's death.
Procurator Fiscal Depute Nancy Beresford asked Mr Stewart: "How would you describe some of the views expressed? Vociferous?"
He replied: "Yes, some of the fire crew held some fairly strong views. It was a learning experience for those who were at the incident, to provide an opportunity to explain some of the decisions that were taken; a two-way conversation."
Mrs Beresford then asked: "Could that 'learning experience' include things that were not done well and could be done better?"
Mr Stewart replied: "There was no way to improve the rescue because we did not have the remit to carry the rescue out."
During his evidence, some members of Mrs Hume's family aired their frustrations from the public gallery. They had to be asked to be quiet by Mrs Beresford.
Earlier, the inquiry was dramatically halted after a senior fireman broke down in tears.
Group Commander Freddie Howe said he had been ordered by Mr Stewart not to lower a paramedic into the shaft. He went on: "This was the worst incident I have ever encountered in 32 years. It was a difficult situation. We had a casualty we knew was still alive. It was very unusual."
He was asked by the fire brigade's lawyer, Clare Crawford: "Everyone wanted Alison to come out of the hole as quickly as possible, but without compromising her condition?"
The 54-year-old officer replied, with tears in his eyes: "We are not in the business of losing life."
He was unable to continue and gripped the side of the witness box.
Sheriff Desmond Leslie ordered a brief adjournment to allow him to recover.
The inquiry continues.
Call to ensure that 'saving lives is always the priority'
HEALTH and safety rules which may have stopped rescue workers pulling an injured women from a mine shaft must be reviewed, the First Minister was told yesterday.
SNP MSP Willie Coffey raised his concerns as a fatal accident inquiry continues into the death of Alison Hume, 44, one of his constituents. She fell about 60ft down the disused mine shaft in Galston, Ayrshire, in July 2008 and lay at the bottom of it for hours because a health and safety memo prevented fire fighters from rescuing her, it has been reported. Strathclyde Police, Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, the Scottish Ambulance Service and mountain rescue teams all attended the scene.
During First Minister's Questions at Holyrood yesterday, Mr Coffey called on Alex Salmond to "ensure that the Scottish Government reviews the health and safety guidance operated by the emergency services so that saving lives is always the priority".
Mr Salmond told MSPs that the Health and Safety Executive and Chief Fire Officers Association have been in talks to prepare a "high-level" statement on operational guidance.
He added: "I can confirm that the Scottish fire and rescue advisory unit will take part in the launch of that statement on Friday, 12 March, with a similar event planned from the Scottish fire and rescue service."
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