Page last updated at 19:38 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

'Negligence' led to depot deaths

Nathan and Martin Winter
Nathan Winter and his father Martin each deny manslaughter

Two firemen died in a huge explosion at a fireworks depot because of "gross negligence" in the storage of explosives, a court has been told.

A metal container illegally packed with fireworks exploded like a bomb, hurling fragments far and wide in the blast in December 2006, Lewes Crown Court heard.

Retained firefighter Geoff Wicker, 49, and support officer Brian Wembridge, 63, died and 20 others were injured.

Martin Winter, 52, and his son Nathan, 25, deny two counts of manslaughter.

Not guilty pleas have also been entered on behalf of Mr Winter's company, Alpha Fireworks Ltd, which faces two counts of breaching health and safety legislation.

Richard Matthews, prosecuting, said that on the day of the explosion, Nathan Winter was preparing for a display in Eastbourne.

The company, based at Marlie Farm, in Shortgate, near Lewes, was known at the time as Festival Fireworks UK Ltd.

Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge
Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge died in the explosion

"It seems that the fire broke out whilst he was handling the fireworks and equipment for the display and soon exploding fireworks spread to other areas of the site," said Mr Matthews.

Firefighters from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service were sent to tackle the blaze as fireworks spread the fire from building to building.

Fire service officials decided to evacuate Marlie Farm and withdraw, but a number of fire officers were still nearby.

They included Mr Wembridge, a video cameraman who was filming the fire operation, and Mr Wicker, one of the fire officers at the scene.

Mr Matthews said that in video footage captured by Mr Wembridge, which will be shown to the jury, the container doors were blown open by the pressure shortly before his screen went blank.

'Total carnage'

He said the blast in the container was described as a "mass explosion".

"Put simply, it exploded like a bomb, in a single enormous explosion, shattering the metal container and hurling large pieces of metal far and wide, leaving a scene of total carnage."

Smoke rising from the fire at the fireworks factory
The blaze spread as fireworks exploded

He said storing fireworks in the container did not comply with the company's licence to store them in a building.

It put on substantial professional displays, and Martin Winter and his wife Julie were also directors of another firm selling fireworks direct to the public.

The court was told the container that exploded was only one of a number where explosives were stored in buildings and locations unauthorised by the licence.

It was not being suggested that the Winters intended any harm or to kill the two firemen, Mr Matthews said.

But he added: "Anyone involved in storing and handling fireworks has a responsibility to take proper care.

"That responsibility is one that is recognised by the law.

"The prosecution allege that, bearing in mind the risk of death involved, the conduct of each of these two men was such a bad failure to take reasonable care that it properly is described as criminal."

The trial continues.



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