MoD criticised over Durham soldier's death

A coroner has criticised the Ministry of Defence for a series of failures over the deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan.

MoD/PA Wire Private Robert Wood (left) and Private Dean Hutchinson who died in a fire that engulfed their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion
Private Robert Wood (left) and Private Dean Hutchinson who died in a fire that engulfed their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion

A coroner has criticised the Ministry of Defence for a series of failures over the death a North soldier and one of his colleagues in a fire 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 Private Dean Hutchinson, 23, from Spennymoor, and Private Rob Wood, 28.

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 MoD now has 56 days to reply to the coroner, 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.

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 10-day inquest in Salisbury, Wiltshire, 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 approximately 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 and there may have been confusion about who was responsible for checking the smoke detectors in the Transport Troop tent.

Electrical items in the Transport Troop tent had not been safety 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 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 Hutchinson was a driver and had seven years’ service with the Army.

Pte Wood, known as Woody, had become a father to a boy, Noah, shortly before he died. He lived in Marchwood, Hampshire.

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