TWO TEENAGERS have escaped jail sentences after starting a £9 million fire which ripped through an Eastbourne retail park last year.
The 17 and 18-year-old friends were given 200 hours community service each by a district judge on Wednesday after being convicted of arson at the Crumbles in the run up to Christmas last year.
The court heard the boys had never meant to start the fire and it was a case of ‘boys playing with fire which went horribly out of control’.
The fire began in a trolley full of cardboard behind Boots and quickly spread to the store as well as neighbouring shops including Next, Sports Direct and Matalan.
The Boots store was shut for several months and had to be rebuilt.
Other stores had to close their door during the busiest shopping weeks of the year, throwing away hundreds of thousands of pounds in smoke-damaged stock.
This week at Hastings Youth Court the two defendants appeared to be sentenced.
At earlier hearings, the court was told how the two boys, aged 16 and 17 at the time of the offence, had ‘test lit’ pieces of cardboard in the trolley behind the store to see if it burnt and were planning to take it to the beach for a bonfire.
The 17-year-old blew his fire out but it was the 16-year-old’s fire which quickly caught fire, spreading to the wall and then the building resulting in the fire.
Fire crews from Eastbourne, Hailsham and neighbouring towns rushed to the scene to tackle the inferno.
Justin Rivett, defending the 18-year-old, said his client had no intention of committing any criminal offence that evening.
“He, the other defendant and a third youth, who was not charged, had been out, and met up with each other,” said Mr Rivett.
“It had been snowing, it was cold, they had a snowball fight and decided to have a bonfire on the beach.
“Rather than dragging damp cardboard to the beach and finding it wouldn’t light, they decided to test light it. They certainly didn’t intend to burn down shops.
“They panicked, went off and spent time debating whether to ring 999 but didn’t want to use their own mobile phones.
“Their intention was to go to the nearest phone box to dial 999 but during this discussion they heard the sirens and assumed it was the fire brigade. They went home and were traced by police officers some time afterwards.”
Mr Rivett said the incident had had a profound effect on the 18-year-old, who had never been in trouble with police before and was intending to go to university.
“He is fully aware of the far reaching consequences his actions have had and appreciates the disturbance caused and the lack of income to the shops,” he said. “It is a very regrettable incident.”
Defending the 17-year-old Madeleine Priestley said her client too was full of remorse and had learnt from the incident.
She said the incident had had a profound effect on him and his family, describing it as a one-off offence.
“He has learned a lot, matured greatly and will take everything that is to be gained from the order recommended by the probation service.”
The two teenagers were not ordered to pay compensation to the stores but will have to each pay £750 court costs.
The youth referral orders handed down to them by the court will last for 18 months.