Page last updated at 17:30 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Firework factory explosion death pair jailed


Fire brigade video of the blast shot by Brian Wembridge before he died

A father and son have been jailed for the manslaughter of two firemen killed in an explosion at a fireworks factory.

Geoff Wicker, 49, and Brian Wembridge, 63, were killed in the fire at Marlie Farm in Shortgate, near Lewes, East Sussex, in December 2006.

Martin Winter, 52, owner of Festival Fireworks UK Ltd, since renamed Alpha Fireworks Ltd, was jailed for seven years at Lewes Crown Court.

His son Nathan, 25, was jailed for five years. Both men had denied the charges.

They were found to be "grossly negligent" through knowing an unlicensed metal container packed with fireworks could explode if a blaze broke out.

Nathan and Martin Winter
Nathan Winter and his father Martin had both denied manslaughter

The container was used to house fireworks before being shipped to the Middle East, the jury heard.

It had been unlicensed for storage by the firm, and jurors were told it was obvious to the defendants of the potential for a huge blast if a fire broke out.

Jurors found Martin Winter guilty on Monday, while Nathan Winter was convicted earlier.

Judge Mr Justice Cooke, told the pair: "You had deliberately placed fireworks capable of causing mass explosion knowing that you didn't have the authorisation.

"You deliberately flouted the explosives regulations for profits, no doubt familiarity bred contempt."

He described Martin Winter as "reckless" and said that during the fire, he was about as "obstructive and objectionable as it was possible to be".

'Mass explosion'

He said: "You wanted them to fight the fire when you knew that the risk of mass explosion meant that everyone should have evacuated the site and moved to a considerable distance away."

The judge also said the pair had sought to cover up their breaches of the explosives regulations and site licence, and did not "lay out the facts" before the firefighters.

However, he also reserved criticism for the fire service, saying the firefighters' "ignorance of their own procedures, of explosives regulations and codes of practice for firefighting and their lack of training in dealing with fireworks contributed to what happened".

"The vast majority of them did not regard fireworks as explosives capable of causing a large explosion," Mr Justice Cooke said.

Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge
Geoff Wicker (L) and Brian Wembridge died in the explosion

As well as killing the two firemen, both long-serving members of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, the blast injured 20 others, mainly police and fire officers.

Following the trial, the company was fined £30,000 after being found guilty of two counts of breaching health and safety legislation.

The court heard the firm was also fined for improper storage of fireworks company 10 years ago.

In a statement after the trial, the family of Mr Wembridge said nothing was "too much trouble" for him.

"He would always look for the best in people, concentrating on the positives and putting others before himself," they said.

Mr Wicker's relatives said: "Geoff was a real family man. He loved life and always put others before himself, helping them to achieve their full potential."

'Patchy enforcement'

Des Prichard, chief fire officer of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said the outcome of the case would not alter the impact of the tragedy.

"No court case or custodial sentence will alter what happened, but at least we now have a better understanding of how the tragedy unfolded," he said.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said both Martin and Nathan Winter had shown "total contempt" for firefighter and public safety, but it also warned that lessons had not been properly learned by either the government or the fire service.

It said there were major gaps in the way fire services trained crews to deal with the risks of fireworks explosions while tackling fires, and nationally "the monitoring and enforcement of fireworks regulations is patchy at best and non-existent at worse".

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