Page last updated at 20:04 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

Fire boss tells inquiry mine rescue was a 'success'

Alison Hume
Ms Hume fell down the shaft in July 2008 as she made her way home

A senior fire officer has told an inquiry into the death of a woman who fell down a mine shaft in Ayrshire that the rescue operation was a "success".

Paul Stewart of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue was giving evidence at an FAI into the death of Alison Hume.

The 44-year-old lawyer fell 40ft into the hole in Galston in July 2008.

Mr Stewart said he felt the operation had been successful as they had managed to remove the casualty and a firefighter without any further injury.

In a heated exchange with George Forbes, who is representing Ms Hume's family, the group commander also admitted that he considered risk assessments more important that rescuing the 44-year-old.

Mr Forbes accused Mr Stewart of actively preventing firemen with more experience than him from doing their job.

It was not in our organisation's remit to conduct a rescue of that nature
Paul Stewart
Strathclyde Fire and Rescue

Ms Hume fell into the partially-concealed shaft as she took a shortcut home.

The inquiry, being heard at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, has previously heard that firefighters were unable to rescue her as regulations stated their equipment was for saving themselves, not members of the public.

The solicitor, who worked with the Renfrewshire legal firm McCusker McElroy and Co, was eventually freed by mountain rescue experts but she suffered a heart attack as she was being brought to the surface.

The hearing was told that Mr Stewart arrived at the scene about 0400 BST and took charge of the rescue operation.

At this point a firefighter had already been sent down the mine shaft to assist Ms Hume.

Mr Stewart said if he had been in control at the outset he would not have allowed that officer to go down the hole.

The inquiry heard that he told a paramedic who was about to go down the shaft to stop and wait for the mountain rescue team.

He said: "It was not in our organisation's remit to conduct a rescue of that nature."

The mine shaft was disused and partially concealed

During his evidence it also emerged that fire crews at the scene were frustrated at not being able to rescue Ms Hume.

The inquiry heard that a heavy rescue team told Mr Stewart that they had the training and skills to help her, but he did not agree.

Mr Stewart said that while he sympathised with their opinions, he could not have considered anything without a full risk assessment.

Mr Forbes accused him of relying on "bits of paper" to dictate operations rather than initiative or imagination, but he insisted he followed operational procedures.

The lawyer for the family went on: "This is a fire and rescue situation where the ultimate aim is to rescue the victim.

"Firefighters with considerably more experience than you said it could be done."

Mr Stewart replied: "That's their opinion."

Further collapse

Towards the end of his evidence, Mr Stewart said he felt that the operation had been a success because the casualty, and the firefighter who was with her, had both been removed without any injury to any other person.

Relatives of Ms Hume attending the inquiry were audibly distressed by his comments.

But second senior fire officer at the scene supported Mr Stewart's claim that safety rules prevented Ms Hume's rescue.

Group Commander William Thomson, 47, said triggering a further collapse of the shaft could have buried her and the firefighter, which would have been "unsurvivable".

Dr David Chung, of Crosshouse hospital's casualty department, said Ms Hume died from a combination of hypothermia and chest injury but these were survivable.

The inquiry was adjourned until 29 March.

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