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SHERIFF BLASTS CHIEFS IN MINE RESCUE TRAGEDY; Top brass more worried about procedures than saving Allison from shaft.

Byline: Keith McLeod

TWO fire service commanders who left an injured woman in agony down a mineshaft for six hours were slammed by a sheriff yesterday.

Group commanders Paul Stewart and William Thomson were condemned for their actions in the hours before lawyer Allison Hume died.

And, in a written judgment following a fatal accident inquiry, Sheriff Desmond J Leslie also labelled their evidence to the hearing as "bullish, if not arrogant".

The sheriff pointed out Stewart even called the operation "a success" - despite the death of mum-of-two Allison, 44.

Allison fell 40ft into the disused mineshaft in Galston, Ayrshire, at about midnight on July 26, 2008, while taking a shortcut to her home nearby.

She was found by her daughter Jayne, 19. But although emergency services arrived at about 2.15am, she was only freed at about 7.42am when police mountain rescue experts arrived.

She suffered a heart attack while being brought to the surface and died.

The inquiry at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court - which made Scottish legal history because it was reopened twice to hear new evidence - was told fire service commanders refused to allow their men to attempt a rescue.

At one point, firefighters put their safety harnesses on and were about to enter the shaft but were ordered to stand down by Commander Stewart.

The FAI was told the fire officers believed regulations barred them from using safe working at height (SWAH) equipment to rescue a member of the public, although they could use it to save a colleague.

The sheriff wrote: "I found the evidence of (Stewart and Thomson) to be focused on self justification.

"I found their evidence to be bullish, if not arrogant, in their determination to justify the subservience of the need to carry out a rescue to the need to fulfil policy to the letter.

"Mr Stewart, in particular, considered the rescue operation was 'a success'. In his view, he had adhered to policies and procedures set out by Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service. Unfortunately, this was not a successful operation. I consider the views expressed by Mr Stewart and Mr Thomson were of a fundamentalist adherence to Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service policy.

"Mrs Hume's injuries were survivable; hypothermia materially diminished her chances of survival. The gradual onset of that condition was not recognised as a potential problem.

"There is little doubt the rank and file firefighters in attendance were anxious to conduct a rescue as quickly as possible but were prevented from doing so by the superiors."

Last night, Allison's stepfather Hugh Cowan, 68, who watched helplessly with her mum Margaret, 67, Jayne and Allison's other daughter Sophie, 17, at the scene, said the family were "grateful" to the sheriff for being so thorough.

He said: "He has carefully studied all the evidence from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue and systematically unpicked it line by line.

"He has slated Paul Stewart and Billy Thomson. He more or less said the fire service had tried to pull the wool over his eyes.

"We have nothing against ordinary firemen and women. They wanted to get Allison out but their bosses stopped them."

He added: "Part of our campaign for the truth was to ensure the same thing would not happen to someone else's daughter or mum. But we are not convinced procedures have changed."

Allison's local MSP Willie Coffey last night said he would be calling for assurances from the Fire and Rescue Service that vital lessons had been learned.

He said: "Sheriff Leslie's report has confirmed what many of us thought when we heard about the tragic death of Allison Hume. Operational guidance is important to keep everyone safe but saving lives has to be the priority."

The fatal accident inquiry was originally adjourned at the end of March 2010.

Sheriff Leslie reopened it for the first time that August after a letter from retired Strathclyde Fire and Rescue watch commander John Bowman, who described the chiefs' approach as "morally indefensible".

The inquiry reopened for a second time in February to hear from the Scottish Cave Rescue Organisation.

Last night, there was speculation that the sheriff's findings could lead to a prosecution. A Crown Office spokesman said: "The fiscal at Kilmarnock will give consideration to the terms of the sheriff's determination."

CAPTION(S):

DEADLY Z The shaft. Above, its location on Below, how farmland. we reported the letter which led to the FAI being reopened CONDEMNED J Paul Stewart, above. Right, Allison's stepdad Hugh
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 17, 2011
Words:743
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