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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Long wait for fire inquest
Emergency services at the scene in 1981
Party-goers were trapped upstairs when fire broke out
The New Cross fire tragedy, and its aftermath, has become one of the most controversial events in the history of British race relations.

The 1981 blaze, which started during a birthday party for two girls at a house in New Cross, south London, killed 13 young party-goers.

A murder inquiry was launched after the incident, led by south London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell.

In the immediate aftermath there was much speculation that racists were responsible for the fire, as many of the victims were black.

Right from the start, relations between the police and the local community were strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency and criticised for ruling out a racial motive.

The force argued it did not have enough evidence or witnesses.

Jan 1981: Fire at 439 New Cross Road
May 1981: Inquest - open verdict
1985: Criminal investigation closes due to "insufficient evidence"
1993: Stephen Lawrence murder
1997: New Cross investigation reopened
2001: Police announce grounds for fresh inquest
October 2002: High Court agrees to hold fresh inquest
A coroner's inquest in 1981 cast doubt on the integrity of the investigation and on Commander Stockwell's professionalism.

The inquest jury returned an open verdict on the deaths, but many of the victims' families accused the coroner of misleading the jury.

The High Court agreed, but ruled the verdict should stand.

Anger at police handling of the case, and accusations of a cover-up, saw as many as 20,000 take to the streets in protest.

The fire, and the police reaction to it, is widely held to have been one of the catalysts for the Brixton riots of April 1981.

Families' campaign

The New Cross Fire Families' Committee was set up after the 1981 inquest to campaign for a new inquest.

For several years their campaign ran into a brick wall, with their requests for a new inquest twice rejected.

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

Following the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the stinging criticism of the Met's handling of that case and "institutional racism" in the force, the Met began a shake-up of the way it handled cases where there appeared to be a racist motive.

After a meeting in 1997 with the MP, senior Metropolitan police officers and the families, a decision was taken to reopen the New Cross investigation.

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

But whether they will be satisfied with the result of that inquest - another open verdict - remains to be seen.




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