Investigation into couple’s deaths after care home fire faces ‘further delay’
PUBLISHED: 17:03 21 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:03 21 October 2020
The deaths of an elderly couple after a fire at a care home will be examined in a public hearing next spring, more than three years after the deadly blaze.
An inquest will investigate the deaths of Bernard Wilks and his partner Yvonne Rowan, after Mr Wilks’s oxygen cylinder reportedly exploded at the Woodlands View Care Home in Magpie Crescent, Stevenage.
A pre-inquest hearing heard today that some witnesses and information remain outstanding, two-and-a-half years after the incident.
Senior coroner Geoffrey Sullivan said that having looked at the case, he had identified three members of staff from the care home – a manager, a senior carer and a nurse – who might provide particularly helpful testimony.
But a lawyer for the families informed him that none of those three witnesses had yet been traced.
Mr Sullivan said he found that “surprising” and “extremely unusual”, telling a member of his staff: “It looks like we are going to have to make some enquiries, in conjunction with the police, to find some of these people... I think we might have to press a little bit harder.”
A fire broke out at Woodlands View on Saturday, February 3, 2018. Two days later, Hertfordshire County Council publicly stated that the cause may have been an explosion in an oxygen cylinder.
Mr Wilks, 87, had lived at the care home for roughly 18 months before the incident. He suffered from two lung conditions and often used portable oxygen cannisters.
Ms Rowan, 79, was visiting him when the explosion occurred and the couple were among seven people who were hospitalised as a result.
Mr Wilks died shortly after the incident, having suffered what his son Stephen called “horrific” burns.
Ms Rowan, who suffered burns and smoke inhalation, remained in hospital for eight weeks before dying from pneumonia.
Legal firm Slater and Gordon, which is representing the couple’s families, said in a statement: “Yvonne was interviewed by the police while in hospital after coming round following the fire. She said that almost as soon as she arrived [at the home], she began changing the oxygen over – something she had done many times through Bernard’s illness.
“As she did so, the cannister hissed, sparked and set on fire, quickly spreading to Bernard’s bed and pyjamas.
“The next thing she remembered is being dragged out of the room, into the corridor, screaming for someone to get Bernard out.”
Mr Wilks’s daughter Jacqui had also noticed an oxygen cannister hissing when she visited her father a few days before the fire, the firm added.
Mr Sullivan said today: “Clearly, the issue here is the oxygen tank, the valve assembly - we’ve got a good deal of evidence about that – and to seek to determine what actually caused the explosion, the fire, the two deaths.”
Lawyers said questions also remained as to what happened to other oxygen tanks which may have been part of the same batch.
“There is certainly a question as to what happened to those bottles, what tests were done on them,” Mr Sullivan said. “I think it would be helpful to know if they were taken, if they were tested and so forth.
“You are right to observe that despite the extremely detailed examination of the cylinders and various parts and so on, that at the moment we really just have a number of potential causes which will be looked at and considered.”
The investigation into the couple’s death has been tentatively listed for March. Mr Sullivan told relatives that it would be the first jury inquest since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said the usual jury deliberation room was too small under social distancing rules.
“There is a larger room,” he said. “That hasn’t been cleared yet. I’m going to list this case in the anticipation that by that time the room will be cleared for use and we will be able to proceed.
“I appreciate you are not pushing for a jury inquest, but the position is that the legislation requires it. That does mean further delay, which is extremely unfortunate.”
He told the court: “The work for now seems to be focused towards finding those various witnesses from Woodlands View and ensuring their attendance.
“Members of the family, it is a case which ought to have been heard earlier, frankly. It has been some time since the deaths and clearly, the present circumstances are not the only reason for the delay. It’s just unfortunate that it’s now being made even more difficult to list.”
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