Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 11:35 UK

Wait for compensation after asbestos death

By Robin Punt
BBC Inside Out

Ellen Paddock
Ellen Paddock died in November after suffering an asbestos-related illness

The family of a civilian woman who died in 2007 after being exposed to asbestos ash from a fire at a military base will have to wait until at least next year before they receive compensation from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Ellen Paddock suffered painful medical treatment in the knowledge she would not live long enough to see her three children grow up.

Since her death last year at the age of 31, it has emerged that the Army did not do enough to prevent the fire because changes to their massive storage depot were ruled out as expensive and inconvenient.

When the Army depot at Donnington, Shropshire, caught fire in 1983 fire crews were powerless to stop it.

Ash and debris rained down on surrounding homes as the building and its contents were engulfed in flames.

A huge spiralling tower of smoke could be seen for miles, with much of the fallout coming down in residential streets in and around Telford.

That's the hardest part - knowing you're going to die and having your whole life taken away from you before you've even had a chance to start to live it
Ellen Paddock, speaking in July 2007

The BBC's Inside Out programme has seen confidential papers which show the Ministry of Defence was explicitly warned its building was not fire-safe.

But improvements were ruled out on the basis of cost and on "operational grounds".

The documents show it would have been inconvenient to divide the massive depot into a series of compartments, which might have slowed down the spread of any fire.

In 1983 Ms Paddock was seven years old when the blaze covered her home in Telford in ash.

Asbestos 'snowflakes'

In an interview with BBC's Midlands Today in July 2007, she was seriously ill and was being treated for an asbestos-related disease.

She recalled the day she played for hours in the garden as what she described as "snowflakes" rained down from the sky.

"I know it's killing me and that I'm going to die from it," she said.

"That's the hardest part - knowing you're going to die and having your whole life taken away from you before you've even had a chance to start to live it."

Three months later, in November 2007, Ms Paddock died from mesothelioma.

Her sister Sharon Bush is angry that, despite an inquest which found that Ms Paddock's death was a result of the fire, it could be another year before the family receive compensation from the MoD.

The scene of the fire in 1983
Most of the fallout from the fire came down in Telford

She said: "These people are there to protect this country, Great Britain, and this happens in their own grounds.

"They let my sister die."

It is possible that her sister's death was an isolated case, a cruel twist of fate against all the odds.

But if - as the inquest into Ms Paddock's death concluded - exposure to asbestos did indeed kill her, others living and working near the depot at the time of the fire wonder if they might be affected too.

Alun Horsefall worked at the Donnington base as a military policeman.

Mr Horsefall, who is now retired, said he was concerned traces of the toxic metal Beryllium also found at the site of the fire have damaged his health.

'Tragic accident'

Medical experts have said it is unlikely a small exposure would have an effect 25 years later.

However, the verdict on asbestos is not so clear.

Peter Irvine, an asbestos expert for health and safety firm Tetra Consulting, said: "Everybody is subjected to asbestos pollution and asbestos products for much of their lives, so we mustn't take this out of context.

"However, the greater the exposure, the greater you put yourself at risk over a period of time."

Sharon Bush
Sharon Bush is angry about how long it is taking to receive compensation

In a statement the MoD told the BBC it had learned lessons from the "tragic accident" and that its sympathies remained with Ms Paddock's family and friends.

An MoD spokesman said: "The Ministry of Defence takes the health and safety of its staff and neighbours very seriously and considerable work has been put in to ensure that the risk of such an accident happening again is minimised.

"As this case is subject to ongoing civil proceedings, it is not appropriate to comment further at this time."

The family's compensation case is not scheduled for the High Court until next summer - a full two years after Ms Paddock's death.

Inside Out West Midlands is on BBC1 on Wednesday at 1930 BST

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