Ewan Williamson legal bid: Court hears of moments leading up to firefighter’s death

Ewan Williamson with his mother Linda

Ewan Williamson with his mother Linda

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A court today heard the string of events leading up to the death of tragic firefighter Ewan Williamson as a £700,000 legal action brought by his family got under way.

• Claims watch commander did not recognise backdraught warning

The Balmoral Bar after the fire

The Balmoral Bar after the fire

• Relatives say failings lead to firefighter’s death

Ewan Williamson, 35, lost his life as he was deployed fighting a fire which broke out at the Balmoral Bar in Edinburgh’s Dalry Road in July 2009.

His mother Linda, 69, of St Mary’s Place, Kinross, and his sisters Rachel, 45, of California, USA, and Rebecca, 41, of Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, are now suing Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Board for compensation at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

In it they claim watch commander Tim Foley did not recognise a warning of a potentially very dangerous “backdraught fire”.

It is also alleged that it ought to have been obvious that the seat of the fire was not going to be found by the time Mr Williamson went in again.

Recovery

The family say in their action: “It ought to have been obvious that it was pointless to further risk the lives of firemen to fight the fire in the basement. An ordinarily competent fire officer exercising reasonable care would have recognised this and not re-committed the deceased.”

It is also maintained that the deceased did not have sufficient recovery time before he went in again.

It is claimed: “A suitable and sufficient assessment would have indicated that it was unsafe to recommit the deceased having had only a 10 minute break.”

They also maintain that ventilating the fire by smashing windows in order to clear smoke from the bar made the task of fighting the fire in the pub basement more dangerous.

Lord Stewart was told today that the relatives of Mr Williamson, formerly of Blackthorn Court, in Edinburgh, are seeking to have their action heard before a civil jury.

Liability

But the board, which is contesting the case, is opposing that move.

Its solicitor advocate Alan Cowan said the opposition was related to the complexity of the basis on which the relatives sought to establish liability.

Mr Cowan pointed to part of the pleadings and said: “It raises fundamental issues as to the approach to firefighting.”

He said it would involve expert evidence and it was the board’s position that it would be too complicated for a jury.

Lord Stewart pointed out that evidence from experts was regularly heard by juror in criminal trials.

The judge continued the motion and gave the board time to lodge a note outlining its position.

The family said in their action that the incident scene at the pub fire was initially commanded Mr Foley. Mr Williamson was part of one of two breathing apparatus teams ordered into the premises.

His team went in and located stairs and went down with a hose and sprayed the area with water but were unable to locate the fire, before leaving the building.

They changed breathing canisters and went back in again and an order was given to smash windows at the front of the bar to clear smoke, it is said.

Extreme heat

It is claimed that the effect of ventilating the building by smashing windows was to draw smoke and gases onto those trying to find and fight the fire.

Mr Williamson’s partner returned to the entrance to the bar and was asked where Mr Williamson was and replied to the effect that he thought he was right behind him, it is said.

Mr Foley contacted Mr Williamson by radio and received a message: “I’ll be there in a minute boss, I think I’m stuck in a toilet.”

His partner went back in to look for him. Another team using breathing apparatus was unable to descent the stairs to the basement because of the extreme heat.

Mr Williamson was heard on the radio saying: “I’m stuck, I’m stuck.”

An emergency team was sent in to try and find him but did not have fire fighting equipment or breaking tools, it is said.

They made their way to the toilets and tried to get in but they could not open the door which Mr Williamson was behind, it is said. The floor collapsed and they had to return to the entrance.

Confused

Firefighters then used a specialist saw to cut through to the toilets before they managed to get to him.

It is said in the action: “On ascending the stairs from the basement for the second time the deceased was confused and suffering from heat exhaustion. As a result of the said confusion and heat exhaustion, when the deceased got to the top of the stairs he turned towards the toilets, instead of towards the entrance of the bar.”

The board is contesting the action and maintains that the sum sued for is excessive.