Court hearing into fireworks tragedy

Marlie Farm fireworks blaze aftermath
Marlie Farm fireworks blaze aftermath

The tragic deaths of two firefighters and injuries caused to others in a massive explosion at an East Sussex fireworks factory could have been averted by the fire service, a top judge was told today.

Experienced firemen Geoff Wicker, 49, and Brian Wembridge, 63, died when a container of hazardous fireworks exploded at Marlie Farm near Lewes six years ago.

In July 2011, a High Court judge ruled their families and others injured in the blast were entitled to payouts from Alpha Fireworks Ltd, formerly known as Festival Fireworks UK Ltd, the company that operated from the site.

And this week the men’s widows, nine firefighters and four police officers launched a compensation claim against East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS) at London’s High Court.

On the first day of a 10-day hearing, lawyers told Mr Justice Irwin of the scenes of “chaos and disarray” leading up to the catastrophic explosion.

Pointing the finger at ESFRS, Frank Burton QC, for Mr Wicker’s widow and the four injured police officers, said, “There was inadequate training provision, insufficient information, inadequate equipment, leading to inevitable leadership failures.

“What runs through all the evidence in this case is a leitmotif that the tragedy could well have been averted.

“There was, however, a cascade effect, similar to a stacked line of dominos – intervention at any stage would have prevented this. These cascades of pre-incident failure are really the cause of the operational failures”.

Mr Burton – who described ESFRS’s denials of liability as “particularly obnoxious” – said it was “disturbing” that few of the firefighters scrambled to the scene knew fireworks could be so volatile.

ESFRS denies breaching duties it owed emergency services personnel on the ground that day. Barrister Lord Faulks QC said the explosion had resulted in a “sad day” for all involved but denied negligence played a part in the tragedy.