Ewan Williamson: What happened to Edinburgh firefighter who died in line of duty in Balmoral Bar blaze?
The tragic death of Barry Martin, a firefighter who was sent to battle the blaze at Jenners in Princes Street, has shaken the Capital this week. There are calls for Mr Martin to be awarded the George Cross after he died from injuries suffered when fighting the flames at the historic building.
Mr Martin is the first firefighter to have died in the line of duty in Edinburgh since Ewan Williamson, who was described as “dedicated and reliable member of the team”. This is what happened to Mr Williamson.
What happened to Ewan Williamson? Balmoral Bar fire
A member of the Green Watch at Tollcross fire station, Ewan Williamson was sent to tackle a serious fire which had broken out in the Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road on July 12, 2009, now known as Benson’s Bar. Heartbreakingly, he was on annual leave at the time but had offered to do overtime to make up for a shortage of staff.
The 35-year-old entered the burning building with a colleague to find the fire, which was sending black smoke into the street – causing around 20 people to be evacuated from neighbouring houses. However, speaking in court afterwards, advocate despute Iain McSporran said: “The heat had become unbearable and in their view it was too dangerous to continue.”
On a second sortie, the team became separated due to the poor visibility and Mr Williamson turned left into the men’s toilets – directly above the fire – where he became trapped. The court heard his colleague thought Mr Williamson was right behind but, when he failed to appear, the team radioed him.
Mr Williamson sent a radio reply saying: “I’ll be there in a minute boss, I’m stuck. I think I’m stuck in the toilet.” However he said he was unable to open the toilet door. He was told to activate his distress signal unit but no-one could hear it in the building.
The court heard how his colleagues desperately tried to find Mr Williamson in the smoke-filled building, showing great selflessness and bravery. The firefighters managed to get to a door but could not open it as the floor began to give way beneath their feet and they were forced to move.
Eventually, the court heard they were able to hack their way through a boarded-up window, where they found Mr Williamson lying on the floor. A postmortem later found he had died from injuries suffered in the fire. He was likely to have been dead for some time before his colleagues found him.
Mr McSporran said: “Only those who have encountered and confronted that kind of environment can truly appreciate the courage required to enter into a burning building, not once but twice, and the debt which we the public owe those whose job involves demonstrating that level of courage.
“The loss of Ewan Williamson, who demonstrated exactly the courage and commitment demanded of this job, has been hard for his family and loved ones to bear, and hard on those immediate colleagues who were there that night, as well as members of fire services across the country and beyond.”
Investigation into Ewan Williamson’s death and SFRS court case
Following Ewan Williamson’s death, his family fought a five-year battle for justice. Criminal proceedings were launched against the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in connection with Mr Williamson’s death in 2013. And the case was eventually held at the Court of Session in Edinburgh on February 23, 2015, where the SFRS admitted breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act – including failing to train firefighters to maintain close personal contact.
SFRS also admitted it failed to have effective systems of radio communication and implementation of procedures for firefighters using breathing apparatus at the time. SFRS pledged to learn from the tragic incident, which was described as “an isolated failing by an organisation with an excellent safety record.”
Ewan Williamson’s mother and sister wept in court as they heard about the recovery of his body from the blazing pub.
The guilty plea was welcomed by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which supported Mr Williamson’s family. Denise Christie, of the FBU in Edinburgh, said at the time: “Ewan was a brilliant firefighter, a great friend to all at Tollcross Green Watch and throughout the fire service and beyond. He will never be forgotten and will always be in our thoughts.”
SFRS was fined £54,000 for health and safety breaches in connection to Mr Williamson’s death. He was the first firefighter in the history of the Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die in the line of duty.
A plaque was placed outside Benson’s Bar in March 2015, which reads: “In memory of firefighter Ewan Williamson, Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, who lost his life tragically whilst fighting a fire in Dalry Road, Edinburgh, on 12th July 2009. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for others’.”