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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 January, 2004, 00:51 GMT
Bereaved relatives' long battle
By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

In the living room of his home in south-east London, George Francis is rehearsing a speech in front of a small group of friends.
Members of the New Cross Fire Families Committee
Relatives and survivors have long campaigned for a new inquest

His steady voice belies the content, for the speech is one he will be delivering at a memorial for his 17-year-old son and 13 other young people who died as a result of a fire 23 years ago.

The fire, during a birthday party at a house in nearby New Cross, has since become a cause celebre among the black community.

Those listening to Mr Francis are all members of the New Cross Fire Families' Committee which he helped set up after an inquest into the blaze in 1981 returned an open verdict.

Only after years of campaigning has it been agreed to hold a new inquest, which is due to open next month.

"None of the parents or survivors agreed with that verdict, it didn't tell us anything. It was if they were saying to us 'we don't know what happened'," Mr Francis said.

"So the parents started to put some pressure on the authorities and we kept on and on with memorial services and meetings".

What most angered the parents about the original verdict was that it came while the police investigation was still incomplete, Mr Francis said.

'Engulfed in smoke'

The New Cross Fire Families' Committee started as a campaign driven by the parents of the victims, but over the years survivors too have become involved.

One is Denise Gooding who, as an 11-year-old, had been allowed as a special treat to attend the all-night party at the home of close family friends with of two of her two elder brothers.

Denise Gooding
Denise Gooding was one of the last to be rescued
Ms Gooding recalls being in an upstairs room waiting for her brothers to come and collect her to go home when she first became aware something was badly wrong.

"Someone rushed upstairs shouting 'fire' and within seconds the place was engulfed in smoke and everyone was fighting to get out.

"But someone must have remembered there was a child in there and actually climbed back up the drainpipe and got me out through the window," she says.

Ms Gooding suffered only minor burns and knows she was lucky to survive - most of the dead, including her 14-year-old brother Andrew, were found in upstairs rooms.

Although on the surface those present seem composed, it is clear that even 23 years after the event memories are still fresh and painful.

Denise Gooding's mother, Ena, says the New Cross Fire is something from which her family will never recover.

Not only did she lose one son but another, David, then 17, survived with horrendous injuries and later developed mental health problems as a result of his experiences, Mrs Gooding says.

Gerry Francis
17-year-old Gerry Francis was among those to die in the blaze

"We've never got over it. It seems as though it happened yesterday. Plus day-to-day I have David now who I have to do everything for."

George Francis's wife, Velvetina, also says that time will not heal the families' pain at their loss. She remembers vividly the early morning phone call which changed their lives for ever.

"George answered the phone. It was Gerry's friend. Then I heard George say 'Gerry is dead?' and that's really all I can remember clearly," Mrs Francis says.

After hearing the news Mrs Francis became hysterical and had to be sedated for two weeks.

'Impetus'

Although the New Cross Fire families' campaigners have been high profile in recent years, for a long period they seemed to be fighting an impossible battle to revive a case on which the police file had been closed.

And their efforts to get a new inquest had twice been rejected.

George Francis says he and the other members of the group often encountered cynicism.

"Some people said to me 'George, why are you all carrying on with this thing? For so long you've got nowhere'. But that gave me the impetus to carry on.

It wasn't an accident, it was deliberate
Nerissa Campbell, mother of victim

"All the parents experienced this but now at least the sceptics will see our fighting achieved something - a second inquest. If we had believed them and stopped we'd have been nowhere."

The families' determination eventually led to local MP Joan Ruddock backing their campaign.

Following a meeting in 1997 with the MP, senior Metropolitan police officers and the families, a decision was taken to re-open the investigation.

And in 2002 the High Court finally agreed to the families' request for a fresh inquest due to begin in February 2004.

'No prosecution'

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, right-wing groups such as the National Front, which were active in the south-east London area, were suspected of being involved in starting the blaze.

New forensic evidence about where the fire started has led to that theory being discounted by both the police and many of the families, but Nerissa Campbell whose 17-year-old son, Peter, died in the blaze does not believe it was an accident.

"It wasn't an accident, it was deliberate. They murdered 13 children [a 14th died later] but after 23 years I don't believe anyone will speak the truth now."

Emergency services at the scene in 1981
New forensic evidence has pinpointed where the fire started

Many of the families are pinning their hopes on fresh evidence being revealed during the new inquest.

However, with the scope of inquests in England and Wales limited to establishing basic facts such as the identity of the deceased and how and where they died, it is unlikely that any one in particular will be blamed for starting the fire.

That is something George Francis acknowledges.

"I personally think the best we can hope for is for something like 'the fire was started deliberately by person or persons unknown'.

"It's common sense that with the passage of time there's not going to be a prosecution," he says.

But Denise Gooding, who says she still suffers from panic attacks because of the fire, hopes whatever the outcome, the new inquest will present a way of moving on for many of the relatives and survivors.

"Hopefully whatever we come out with we can go forward with that, because it's been a long time and we really do want to put this behind us."




SEE ALSO:
Unhealed scars of New Cross fire
14 May 01 |  UK News
Plea to solve 1981 blaze mystery
14 Jan 01 |  UK News


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