Police officers who disregarded the training book to crawl into a burning house in a vain attempt to rescue two pensioners have been hailed as heroes by a coroner.
Coroner Joe McCrisken said commanders should consider official recognition for the actions of the officers who were first on scene at the fire that claimed the lives of retired couple Daphne, 66, and Franklin Reid, 70.
He said similar recognition would be appropriate for the paramedics and fire officers who responded to the incident in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. One firefighter entered the home without breathing apparatus to retrieve the fatally-injured Mr Reid.
“All of those people who attended could properly be described as heroes,” said the coroner.
An inquest in Enniskillen courthouse heard how police officers involved contravened one of the main principles of their fire training – not to enter a burning property and leave all internal rescue bids to firefighters.
But having arrived at the burning bungalow in the Silverhill area of the town seven minutes before the first fire appliance, officers told Mr McCrisken they had to act.
The court heard that confusion around a 999 call meant police believed there were children in the house on the night of the fire last December.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Constable Daniel Finnegan crawled in through the back door of the bungalow and tried to cross the floor under a cloud of dense smoke, but he was beaten back by the intensity of the heat.
He then broke window panes to let some of the smoke escape, before again crawling into the blaze.
When asked by the coroner why he acted against training rules, he replied: “It was a personal judgment call.”
Constable Damien Maguire also attempted to enter the house through the burning kitchen.
“The smoke was just too thick to proceed,” he stated.
The coroner said he would not criticise the officers for acting against training.
“In reality you shouldn’t have been anywhere near the centre of this house,” he told Mr Maguire.
“You thought there were kids in there, so that probably over-ruled your training.”
He later added: “If it were me standing outside and my children were inside, or I thought children were inside, I think I would have done exactly the same thing.”
Enniskillen fire station commander Padraig McKeon arrived at the scene shortly after the failed police efforts to access the pensioners.
The court heard that he entered the house without wearing breathing apparatus when he spotted Mr Reid lying on the floor.
He explained that he felt able to enter without the specialist oxygen supply because much of the smoke had vented out of the building by that stage. The commander lifted up Mr Reid and carried him from the house.
Mr McCrisken asked the experienced firefighter to comment on the actions of the police officers.
“They did what they felt was the right thing to do,” he replied.
“They felt there were children inside and that puts an emotional pressure on people to react.”
The fire started in a bedroom where Mr Reid was sleeping when an unextinguished cigarette ignited the carpet.
The blaze took hold unknown to Mrs Reid and family friend Ellen Stewart, both of whom were in the living room having a drink at the time.
The alarm was raised when Ms Stewart responded to Mr Reid’s calls for help. As he could only walk with the aid of a Zimmer frame, she had gone down the corridor to check if he was okay.
When she opened the bedroom door a thick plume of smoke billowed out.
Ms Stewart told the coroner she managed to ring 999 before escaping the fire to seek help from neighbours.
The court heard that Mrs Reid, a retired library administrator from Ballinamallard, had managed to pull her husband from the bedroom and brought him to the living room before returning to the bedroom.
The couple referred to each other by the nicknames mammy and daddy. Mrs Reid also called 999 after the fire took hold and her use of those names led the emergency services to believe there were children in the house.
She was found dead in the bedroom when firefighters entered the home. Mr Reid, a retired lorry driver from Florencecourt, had sustained fatal brain damage and died a week later in hospital.
The home had a smoke alarm but investigators were unable to determine if it sounded, as it was so badly burnt.
In delivering his findings, Mr McCrisken warned of the dangers of smoking indoors. He highlighted that every six days someone in the UK dies as a result of a fire caused by a cigarette.
Noting the volume the couple had been drinking on the night of the fire, he stressed that alcohol was a contributory factor in 50% of all fires in Northern Ireland.
“This was a post-Christmas night, it started off well with a few drinks at home and ended in the worst possible way, in tragedy,” he said.
At the conclusion of the inquest, a lawyer representing the couple’s relatives expressed thanks to the emergency services and all those who had supported the family since the accident.