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'A desperate tragedy': Three family members died in Hornchurch house fire because smoke alarm had no battery

PUBLISHED: 15:25 29 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:30 29 August 2018

Police outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, the scene of a fire. Photo: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Police outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, the scene of a fire. Photo: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Archant

The tragic house fire that claimed all three lives happened last year, and following an investigation it has been found that the smoke alarm in the property did not have a battery in it.

Police outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, the scene of a fire. Photo: Ann-Marie AbbasahPolice outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, the scene of a fire. Photo: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Three members of the same family died in a house fire in Hornchurch after it was found their smoke alarm didn’t have a battery in it, an inquest has determined.

Joseph Whelan, 72, and his wife Anne, had travelled from Ireland to look after his brother James, 76, just a week before the house caught fire, killing all three of them.

Anne died at the scene, while brothers James and Joseph died in hospital within 24 hours of one another.

Assistant coroner, Dr Shirley Radcliffe, determined all their deaths were accidental, and post mortem results showed they all died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

Police and a firefighter outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch investigate the cause of a blaze. Photo: Ann-Marie AbbasahPolice and a firefighter outside the property in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch investigate the cause of a blaze. Photo: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Firefighters were called at around 4am on Monday, February 6 last year, by the next-door neighbours of the Whelans who could smell burning.

At first there were no immediate signs that the house was on fire - there were no cars on the drive and the front door was locked.

However, when a firefighter put his head against the window he could feel heat from the flames inside the house.

After breaking down the door, one team searched upstairs as another did the same downstairs.

A fire engine in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, after tackling a house fire. Photo: Ann-Marie AbbasahA fire engine in Laburnum Avenue, Hornchurch, after tackling a house fire. Photo: Ann-Marie Abbasah

The house was filled with smoke, and one end of the sofa in the living room was alight - but this was quickly put out by firefighters.

Officers then discovered Joseph - a retired Navy communications officer of 24 years - and his wife on the floor next to each other in the front bedroom of the house, from where it is believed they had tried to escape.

Evidence showed they had been sleeping in the back bedroom, but it is believed when they saw the smoke, they ran to the front of the house to call for help.

James - a retired porter - was found downstairs.

It was heard at the inquest on Wednesday, August 29, that paramedics and fire-fighters did as much as they could to try and save the family, and Joseph and James were taken to Queen’s Hospital in Romford to be treated for their injuries.

Anne was pronounced dead at the scene.

The brothers later died in hospital.

An investigation after the fire found that the smoke alarm in the Laburnum Avenue house did not have a battery, and Michael Beasley, watch manager for the London Fire Brigade, said he was unable to be certain of the cause of the fire.

However no evidence was found that it was due to an electrical fault, and at the inquest he said it could have been due to a lit cigarette.

Both Joseph and Anne were smokers.

Tributes were paid to Anne who was a special educational needs assistant, and was described as an intelligent and loving lady, who enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren.

Less than a month before the fire (January 16) Lynne Pritchard of Manorcourt Carehomes had been to visit James to carry out a risk assessment.

This was after Havering Council asked the care company to help James with his daily tasks - due to chronic back problems.

Whilst carrying out the risk assessment she asked James if his smoke alarm was working and he told her it was.

Speaking at the inquest, Tony Cotton - who is responsible for making sure that Manorcourt staff are not neglecting or abusing their service users – said it was not a statutory right of the care company to physically check that the smoke alarm in any property is working.

In the wake of the incident, the care company has changed its guidelines involved in risk assessments, and now will ask service users if they wish to have the fire brigade fit a smoke alarm in a more accessible place in their home - if like the Whelan’s, it is in a place that is not easy to reach.

Concluding, Dr Shirley Radcliffe, assistant coroner, said: “It is a desperate tragedy, I can’t comprehend how tough it must be for you and the rest of your family.

“And I am sure that everyone in this court must echo that.”

Dr Radcliffe came to the conclusion that all three deaths had been due to the family members breathing in carbon monoxide in the fire, and that their deaths were accidental.

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