IN the words of Brian Allaway, his chief officer, Ewan Williamson was a “firefighter’s firefighter,” a role model to his peers who paid the “ultimate sacrifice” while trying to save the lives of others.
When Linda Williamson first heard those words in St Giles’ Cathedral as she bid farewell to her only son, they were a source of solace at a time of unimaginable pain.
Seven years on, the eulogy’s sentiment rings hollow. Where once they provided comfort, she now regards them as emblematic of an institutional hypocrisy that prolonged her family’s anguish.
“I thought we were amongst people we trusted in our moment of deepest grief,” she says now. “We just hung on to their every word. I still can’t get over how the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service abandoned us.”
There is an old maxim that has been passed down through the years to each generation that enrols in the selfless and noble profession of the fire and rescue service: “Let no man’s ghost return to say his training let him down”.
It is a simple saying, but one that speaks of the intrepidness, trust and preparation that informs the everyday duties of those that risk their lives to save others. In the case of Ewan, the only firefighter in the history of the former Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die in the line of duty, it raises questions as to what steps could – or should – have been taken to prevent a young man being taken in his prime.
In the summer of 2009, Ewan told his relatives of a “general feeling of unease” regarding a lack of safety training in the service. Before long, he said, there would be a fatality.
Last week, a harrowing report identified a litany of failures surrounding the incident that led to the 35-year-old becoming trapped in a lavatory while tackling a blaze in the basement of the Balmoral Bar on Edinburgh’s Dalry Road.
Firefighters attending the scene, it concluded, were given “limited or incomplete briefings” about breathing apparatus, with crews “committed into a high-risk environment, ill-equipped and without full appreciation of the hazards”.
In the words of Chris McGlone, executive council member of the Fire Brigades Union, Ewan’s death was “tragic, avoidable and unacceptable”.
The report was released by the SFRS nearly a year to the day after it was fined £54,000, having admitted health and safety breaches in connection with Ewan’s death.
With no fewer than 19 recommendations and nine lessons identified in the report, the SFRS has vowed to learn from the past, with its chief officer, Alasdair Hay, insisting that the service is “committed to ensuring that Ewan leaves a legacy of improved safety for his fellow firefighters across Scotland”.
Its publication brings to an end the most painful chapter in Linda’s life. But its story, she says, has yet to be told in full. It is why she had decided to give her first interview.
In the living room of her Kinross home, her memories of that day in St Giles, just 11 days after she lost Ewan, remain strong. Hundreds of his colleagues honoured their fallen colleague.
“The rain was pounding down on Parliament Square,” she recalls. “It was dripping down their faces, but they never flinched, even though they were mourning too.”
It was a potent expression of the camaraderie that existed between Ewan and his fellow firefighters, one that his mother drew on in her time of need. “I felt surrounded,” she smiles. “I just leant on them.”
The solidarity was short lived. As the investigation into the fire progressed, Linda said her contact with the SFRS ebbed away. By the time the Crown Office applied to raise criminal proceedings against the service in April 2013, it had become non-existent.
It was the first step in an arduous journey through Scotland’s courts system that lasted for nearly three years, spanning numerous preliminary hearings. Only last February did Peter Gray, defence counsel for the SFRS, enter a guilty plea to a contravention of sections 2(1), 2(2) and 33(1)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In Linda’s opinion, it was an admission that should have been made years earlier.
“I don’t understand why or how they could have put my family through that,” she says. “We hung on to every word that came from the SFRS, but once the legal side took over, they didn’t want to know. They played the game. I still can’t get over how they abandoned us.
“They knew they were guilty, but they refused to admit it at the beginning. The SFRS could have said no, that they owed it to Ewan not to go down that road, but they did it anyway. It showed a complete lack of compassion towards my family.”
The only salve for the open wounds came through the Fire Brigades Union, which helped provide legal representation, financial support and, above all, sensitivity, with its representatives Andy Fulton and Ross Wynn on hand to help. “When no one else was there, they grieved with us,” Linda says.
At a time when all she wanted was answers, the silence of the SFRS was hard enough. But her experience with the criminal justice system brought its own hardships, in particular one afternoon when the court was due to hear harrowing evidence about Ewan’s final moments.
“I will never forget it,” she recalls. “It was ten to one in the afternoon, and the advocate depute, Iain McSporran, asked if we could break for lunch early rather than start going into the details only to have to break and reconvene afterwards. He was trying to spare us the distress of doing it twice, if you like. To my astonishment, the judge, Lord Uist, with no care or compassion on his face whatsoever, glanced up at the court clock and said simply, ‘It’s only ten to.’ And that was that. It was cruel and inhumane, an insult to firefighters who risk their lives every day and their families.”
The hurt of that moment has stayed with Ewan’s mother, though the passing of time and the publication of the report has offered some moments of light. She is pleased at the raft of changes that are being implemented at the SFRS as part of its Safer Firefighter training programme. Hay has also written to her to offer his “sincere condolences and an unreserved apology for all the failings of the fire and rescue service” that contributed to Ewan’s death.
A plaque at the former Lothian & Borders Fire and Rescue service headquarters in Laurieston Place pays tribute to Ewan: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for others,” its inscription states. In Linda’s view, such compassion has been sorely lacking down the years.
Despite everything that has happened, she would never discourage others from joining the fire and rescue service, only ask that they join the FBU. “If you’re not in the union and the worst happens, you’ll be on your own,” she cautions.
This summer will mark seven years since she lost her boy. The walls and bookshelves of her modest bungalow are filled with his pictures. In testing times, she would lift one of the photo frames and talk to him, vowing to continue her fight. At the moment, she feels as if a burden has been lifted and that her life can go on. But there are still times when she asks herself the hardest of questions. “Ewan gave his life,” she says, “but sometimes I think: was he a hero or a fool?”