Page last updated at 18:44 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 19:44 UK

Families' tears at Nimrod inquest

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

The bodies of the 14 men are repatriated
Coroner Andrew Walker is known for his independent stance

There were emotional scenes as the families of the 14 men who died in the biggest single loss of life for the British military since the Falklands War heard the voices of their loved ones in their final moments for the first time.

It came as the coroner's court played the cockpit recording of their last desperate minutes on board the Nimrod XV 230 before it exploded in mid-air over Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan.

It was played shortly after the inquest opened, attended by most of the families of the dead, including their widows and several children, as well as many of the parents who lost their sons in the accident.

The inquest is being held by the Oxfordshire deputy coroner Andrew Walker, known for his independent-minded stance during recent inquests involving military personnel.

Mayday signal

He began by offering the families his deepest sympathy. Nothing that he could tell them, he said, would be able to comfort them, but the inquest would establish how, when and where the 14 men died.

Journalists were asked to leave the court as the cockpit recording was played - allowing the families to hear for themselves the voices of their sons, fathers, brothers or husbands in their final minutes as the fire broke out on board on 2 September 2006.

They heard the crew sending out a Mayday signal as they began to try to make an emergency landing. The tape cuts off some two minutes before 1117 GMT on that day, the time a nearby Harrier pilot said he saw the plane explode in mid-air.

Most of the men were based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland

The families emerged from the court shortly afterwards, many of them clearly distressed, some crying openly as they stood trying to comfort one another in the bright sunshine in the car park outside, before returning to hear the first of many witnesses.

They have had to wait almost two years for this inquest while the MoD and RAF carried out a Board of Inquiry.

It concluded last December, and in an unusual step, the MoD took responsibility for the accident after the inquiry identified a catalogue of failings in the way the planes were inspected and maintained, with the age of the aircraft a factor in the tragedy.

That led to an unprecedented public apology in Parliament from the Defence Secretary Des Browne to the families.

The Board of Inquiry came to the conclusion that the accident was caused by a leak of fuel that burst into flames on contact with uninsulated hot air pipes, but it said contributory factors included not only failings in maintenance, but also the lack of a fire suppressant system in the bay next to the number 7 fuel tank.

Fuel leaks

Several RAF witnesses were questioned at the inquest today, as the coroner and families heard from RAF staff from the Nimrod squadron. They heard evidence on fuel leaks, which had apparently triggered alarms on previous flights on other Nimrods, and were a known problem.

Bereaved father Graham Knight, who lost his son Sergeant Ben "Tapper" Knight in the accident, and who has pursued the MoD with vigour, uncovering several documents which showed the MoD ignored safety warnings, asked his own questions of Squadron Leader Guy Bazalgette, the RAF executive officer of the Nimrod detachment.

The officer admitted he had shredded documents ahead of the inquiry in what he told the coroner's court was "an oversight".

The MoD is unlikely to gain much comfort from some of the evidence due to be heard over the coming weeks

The documents had not had anything to do with the plane involved in the accident, he said. With hindsight, Squadron Leader Bazalgette told the court, it was a mistake but the documents had no relevance to the proceedings.

The families also heard from an RAF pathologist, Wing Commander Graeme Maidment. He said all 14 men died from multiple injuries, probably caused by the aircraft's impact with the ground and not the mid-air explosion.

He apologised to the families for any additional distress that may have been caused by DNA complications which initially led to the wrongful identification of some of the victims.

Coroner Andrew Walker commented that whatever role the error played in this case, "the distress it caused to the families cannot be quantified."

Intensive use

The inquest is due to last three weeks and is scheduled to hear from more than 40 witnesses.

Many of the families believe a culture of MoD cost-cutting meant safety recommendations were not implemented, despite warnings from crews and maintenance staff.

The Nimrod fleet, based at RAF Kinloss, had been due to be retired by 2003. However, its replacement is not yet ready, and is not only overdue but also 800m over budget.

The Nimrods are considered so vital to operations over Iraq and Afghanistan that the RAF has had to continue using them intensively, with crews flying sorties of up to 14 hours at a time, gathering crucial intelligence.

The MoD is unlikely to gain much comfort from some of the evidence due to be heard over the coming weeks.

The coroner has been outspoken in several previous inquests, and openly critical over government failures to provide British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with adequate equipment.

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