Alison Hume inquiry: A damning verdict, an avoidable death, but no apology

Alison Hume was stuck down the shaft for several hours
Alison Hume was stuck down the shaft for several hours
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FIRE chiefs “should have saved” a mother of two who fell into a disused mineshaft, her family said, after a fatal accident inquiry found her death could have been avoided.

Lawyer Alison Hume suffered “survivable” injuries after plunging 14 metres down the collapsed shaft in Galston, Ayrshire, in July 2008.

Her rescue was delayed by senior fire officers who showed “rigid compliance” with official health and safety procedures, the inquiry concluded.

The 44-year-old spent up to eight hours in the pit, developed hypothermia, had a heart attack and died in hospital.

A sheriff yesterday ruled that Mrs Hume’s death might have been avoided if certain “reasonable precautions” had been taken.

And he highlighted several “defects” in the systems of working, which contributed to her death.

Last night, Mrs Hume’s stepfather welcomed the sheriff’s ruling but insisted she should not have died and added: “They should have brought her up while she still had a chance of survival.”

And he said he believed nothing had changed to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Strathclyde Fire and Rescue said Mrs Hume’s death was “a source of enormous regret” but stopped short of issuing an apology to the family.

Mrs Hume was walking home after visiting relatives at about midnight when she fell down the mineshaft. She suffered pneumothorax, broken ribs and a broken sternum.

Her daughter Jayne, 17, who had been with her at their relatives’ house, raised the alarm after returning home to find her mother was not there.

The emergency services were called shortly after 2am, after Mrs Hume had been heard whimpering inside the mineshaft.

By the time she was rescued, at 7:42am, she was “profoundly hypothermic” with a core temperature of 24 degrees – 13 deg below normal. She suffered a heart attack while being taken to the surface and later died in Crosshouse Hospital, Kilmarnock.

Firefighters had wanted to go down to rescue her, and 18 of them had been trained to do so. But their senior officers refused to give them permission, believing the situation was not safe.

In his findings after the fatal accident inquiry, Sheriff Derek Leslie said the decision by senior officers to leave Mrs Hume in freezing conditions, having suffered several serious injuries, was “in conflict with the greater aims of a rescue service”.

He was highly critical and said her death could have been avoided if reasonable precautions had been taken by firefighters, who arrived first at the scene, and police.

The sheriff criticised Group Commander Paul Stewart, the senior fire officer at the scene, for saying the rescue had been “a success”.

Sheriff Leslie went on: “Unfortunately, this was not a successful operation: a woman died who had not only sustained survivable, though life-threatening, injuries, but who had also ultimately suffered and died from acute hypothermia, brought about by a prolonged period down a mineshaft, in which time she had been partly immersed, for a time at least, in water.

“I consider that the views expressed by Mr Stewart and Mr [Group Commander William] Thomson were of a fundamentalist adherence to Strathclyde Fire and Rescue policy.”

He also chastised Assistant Chief Fire Officer John Walker for telling the inquiry “he did not consider that fire and rescue services had a sub-surface remit” and would only have one when responding to the collapse of a building, tunnel or some other “structure”, which did not include mines.

“I was not directed to any legislation, or protocol, that allows me to accept the views expressed by Group Commander Stewart, or Assistant Chief Fire Officer Walker, that the type of rescue they would have required to undertake with Mrs Hume was not within the parameters of their engagement,” Sheriff Leslie said.

“There is little doubt that the rank-and-file firefighters in attendance were anxious to conduct a rescue as quickly as possible but were prevented from doing so by the superiors.”

Mrs Hume’s stepfather, Hugh Cowan, 69, said the report had left the family with “mixed emotions”.

“We are grateful to Sheriff Leslie for being so thorough in his examination of what went on that night,” he said.

“He has carefully studied all the evidence from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue and systematically unpicked it line by line.

“He has slated Paul Stewart and Billy Thomson all the way through his report.

“He more or less said that the fire service had tried to pull the wool over his eyes.

“We have nothing against ordinary firemen and women. They wanted to get Alison out, but their bosses stopped them.

“And we would like to thank fireman Alexander Dunn for going down that hole to help her.

“But [Mrs Hume’s mother] Margaret and I are now left with mixed emotions.

“We are happy that the sheriff has got it right. But we are also sad that he has reached the conclusion – like us – that Alison should not have died.

“They should have brought her up while she still had a chance of survival.”

Mr Cowan went on: “Part of our campaign for the truth to come out was to ensure the same thing would not happen to someone else’s daughter or mum.

“But we are not convinced that procedures have changed to prevent the very same thing happening again.”

Strathclyde Fire and Rescue insisted it had learned from the incident and made changes.

Assistant Chief Officer David Goodhew also expressed his sympathy to the family.

“It is a source of enormous regret to everyone within the service that we were not able to rescue Alison Hume, and our thoughts and condolences are with her family today,” he said. “Nothing we say today will bring Alison back, and that is a fact that weighs heavily on the heart of everyone in the emergency services.

“In relation to the findings of the report, we have already improved communication and co-ordination with other emergency services to ascertain who has what equipment available and where.

“Training in the use of specialist equipment is also being undertaken and enhanced.”

He said the rescue attempt had been “uniquely challenging and complex”, and defended the decisions taken by senior officers at the scene, even though he admitted fire crews’ first instinct had been to bring Mrs Hume to the surface “as quickly as possible” using a harness.

“However, medical advice is that using such equipment could have put her life at extreme risk due to the serious nature of her injuries,” he said.

Despite police suggesting they should be called, a decision was taken not to seek help from Scottish Cave Rescue Organisation.

Former colleagues yesterday paid tribute to Mrs Hume.

Terry Gallanagh, a partner in the Renfrewshire legal firm of McCusker McElroy and Co, where Mrs Hume worked, said: “She was a lady with a keen sense of justice and a sharp legal mind.

“She had a real fighter’s spirit for her clients and a wicked sense of humour. She could light up any room she walked into and is sorely missed within McCusker McElroy and, more widely, within the Paisley Faculty of Solicitors.

“Our thoughts go out to her family at this time.”

Strathclyde Police said it would try to learn lessons from Mrs Hume’s death.

A spokeswoman for the force said: “The chief constable is in receipt of the determination.

“It is very detailed and he is giving it careful consideration, particularly those aspects directed to Strathclyde Police.”