Coroner slams MoD over fatal Camp Bastion tent blaze which claimed two soldiers

This Is Wiltshire: Private Dean Hutchinson, who was based at Hullavington Private Dean Hutchinson, who was based at Hullavington

A coroner has criticised the Ministry of Defence for a series of failures over the deaths of two soldiers in a fire which engulfed their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroner David Ridley said he would be making a preventing further deaths report over the case of Privates Dean Hutchinson, 23, who was based in Hullavington, and Rob Wood, 28.

The MoD now has 56 days to reply in writing, giving details of actions that have been taken or are proposed to be taken, or an explanation as to why no action will be taken to prevent future similar deaths.

Mr Ridley recorded a narrative conclusion and listed eight areas where there was either a "systemic failure" or "failure" in the circumstances that led to the men's deaths.

The two soldiers, who served with the Royal Logistic Corps, were killed when fire swept through a logistical centre at Camp Bastion in Helmand province in the early hours of February 14 2011, the ten-day inquest in Salisbury heard.

They were sleeping in the tented Transport Troop office so they could respond more quickly when vital supplies arrived at the military base.

Eyewitnesses described smelling smoke coming from the area housing a 32in flat-screen TV, boiler and fridge, and seeing flames coming from cabling leading to the air conditioning unit.

Private Sikeli Ratu, who was woken by the smell of smoke, fled the canvas tent to raise the alarm and said he could hear Pte Hutchinson calling his name.

But there were delays in alerting the military fire brigade because soldiers at the scene did not know the emergency 222 number.

By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the blaze had taken hold of the tent, with flames of about 3ft high and only the metal tent poles remaining of the structure.

Fire investigators have concluded that the blaze started in the vicinity of the electrical appliances and quickly spread, igniting combustible materials stored nearby.

The inquest heard that both senior commanders and fire safety officers did not know the soldiers were sleeping on duty during night shifts.

Had they known, the fire risk assessment for the tent would have had to have reflected it, with separate sleeping areas and an unobstructed rear exit.

The "unwritten rule" for the troop was that the duty non-commissioned officer should have remained awake while the other soldiers slept.

Giving evidence, Pte Ratu, who was an acting lance corporal, conceded he should not have gone to bed but insisted he had told Private Apenai Bukarau to stay up - something Pte Bukarau rejects.

The inquest heard that Camp Bastion suffered from power cuts and there were also problems reported with the lights and air conditioning at the base.

Infrastructure contractor KBR was responsible for the maintenance of fire alarms, hard wired smoke detectors and the four-way blue domestic power units.

However, they were not responsible for maintaining battery-powered smoke detectors outside of the accommodation blocks or any appliances plugged into the power units.

But there may have been confusion about who was responsible for checking the smoke detectors in the Transport Troop tent.

Corporal David Williams, who was the troop's "fire NCO", insisted it was KBR's job but when presented with evidence to the contrary he conceded he "may well" have been mistaken.

He said he only carried out visual checks on the smoke detectors, which did not match the guidance published in his "fire diary" of how they were to be checked, which included a simple push-button test on the device.

Cpl Williams described seeing the boiler, TV and fridge plugged into a white four-way extension lead, which was then plugged into one socket of the blue domestic power unit.

Electrical items in the Transport Troop tent had not been PAT tested, although regulations stated it should have been done.

Other witnesses spoke of the dangers of "daisy chaining" multiple extension leads, which had been the cause of a previous fire at Camp Bastion.

The Transport Troop tent was also not listed on KBR's "asset register" of all facilities the company was responsible for maintaining.

The hearing also heard that in January 2011 members of the Transport Troop extended the rear of their 18ft by 24ft tent by 50 per cent to house members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

By doing so they filled the space set aside for a fire break and joined it to the adjacent Troop's Quartermaster tent.

The inquest heard that a new fire risk assessment should have been carried out as soon as the extension was built because it was longer than 27ft.

Captain Timothy Fitzgerald - Privates Hutchinson and Wood's troop commander - said there were plans to carry out a new fire risk assessment once they had annexed the recently vacated Quartermaster's tent.

The rear of the Transport Troop tent was not permanently sealed and could be opened by unzipping the fire retardant inner lining and undoing the toggles to the canvas door.

But the rear door to the adjacent Quartermaster's tent was tied up tightly and also padlocked, the inquest was told.

Since the tragedy a number of changes have been made by the Ministry of Defence and Army to improve safety for troops using tents.

Pte Wood, known as Woody, had become a father to a boy, Noah, shortly before he died. He was a driver port operator, posted to 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, and lived in Marchwood, Hampshire.

Pte Hutchinson, from Spennymoor, County Durham, was a driver and had seven years' service with the Army.

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