Couple tried to break window to escape burning hotel, inquest finds
Two men who died after being trapped in a burning hotel tried to break a window to escape hell, an inquest has heard.
A fire at the five-star Cameron House Hotel claimed the lives of Simon Midgley, 32, and his partner, Richard Dyson, 38, of London, in December 2017.
An investigation into a fatal accident at the hotel fire on the shores of Loch Lomond, near Balloch, is underway at Paisley Sheriff Court.
Gary Love, a fire investigator, told the inquest he found evidence the couple had tried to escape from the fire.
‘I noticed a large picture frame was on the side directly below the window on the second floor landing,’ the 57-year-old said, describing the area of the hotel where the men’s bodies were found. .
He added that “the frame had been pulled out of the adjacent wall, most likely with the intention of being used to smash the window”.
The now-retired Scottish Fire and Rescue Service investigator told Crown Solicitor Graeme Jessop what they tried to break through was a laminated double-glazed window, which could not be opened and had managed to break only one pane.
Mr Love told the inquest that their investigation revealed that the fire started in the caretaker’s cupboard of the Grade B listed building, and inside they found evidence of a galvanized bucket, wood ignition and a shovel.
He told the inquest that more than 75 per cent of the 128-room hotel’s main building had been “severely damaged” in the incident and that the fire had caused the majority of the roof to collapse.
Mr Love said his conclusion was that the fire was accidental and most likely the result of a reckless act.
“Ashes have low thermal conductivity; therefore, it is not uncommon for individuals to believe the ashes are dead when in fact hot or smoldering embers are still contained within,” he told the inquest.
Mr Love told Sheriff Thomas McCartney that studies have shown embers cause a fire hours later and can smolder for days.
Darren Robinson, the hotel’s night manager at the time, was testifying at the inquest earlier on Tuesday and saw footage of night porter Christopher O’Malley filling a black plastic bag with ashes and putting it in the closet, which also stored kindling for the nearby fire.
In part of the footage, O’Malley put the ashes down as he spoke to another hotel employee.
Mr Robinson said: ‘It’s not something I would have done’, and added it was a ‘fire hazard’.
“There could be hot embers in the ashes,” he said, and told the inquest that at the time there were “flammable materials” in the cupboard.
He did not know they had been placed there until he saw video footage, the inquest said.
Mr Robinson was alerted to the pre-alarm and he and O’Malley went to try to find the cause.
Moments later the inquest was shown, O’Malley opened the door to the cupboard in which he had previously placed the ashes, where he and a member of the public found the source of the fire.
Smoke quickly began to fill the room, and Mr. Robinson put down his fire bag and guest list, and picked up a fire extinguisher.
But at this stage, Mr Robinson told the court he felt ‘there was no point’.
“It was too big and it was more important to get people out,” he told Mr Jessop.
The audience member can then be seen trying to fight the fire with a fire extinguisher, but to no avail.
Mr. Robinson then called the emergency services.
Mark Stewart QC, acting for O’Malley, told the court his client was a ‘conscientious’ and ‘diligent’ employee.
“When that alarm went off, you asked Mr. O’Malley to go investigate. That’s what we saw happening on video as he rushed into the receiving area slightly ahead of you,” he said.
When smoke was detected, staff were given three minutes to determine the cause, and the inquest was told that O’Malley’s actions had been ‘contributory’ to Mr Robinson’s decision to set off the full alarm.
Mr Stewart said there was nothing to test the temperature of the ash to ensure it was cold enough, and the metal bucket used had been bought from B&Q just before the fire.
And, according to the investigation, O’Malley had told Mr Robinson that the ash bins were full and that the night manager had emailed other hotel staff asking that the bins be emptied.
Hotel operator Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) Ltd has already been fined £500,000 and O’Malley given a community reimbursement order for the fire.
Dumbarton Sheriff Court heard in January last year that the fire started after O’Malley dumped ashes and embers from a fuel fire into a polythene bag and then put them in a cupboard containing kindling wood and newspapers.
The hotel company has admitted that it did not take the necessary fire safety measures to ensure the safety of its customers and employees between January 14, 2016 and December 18, 2017.
The investigation is continuing.