Two jailed for manslaughter for deaths of Sussex firefighters

A father and son have been jailed for manslaughter following an explosion at a fireworks factory in which two fire fighters lost their lives.

Alpha Fireworks owner Martin Winter, 52, was jailed for seven years, and his 25-year-old son, Nathan Winter, sentenced to five years for the deaths of retained firefighter Geoff Wicker, 49, and support officer Brian Wembridge, 63.

The incident took place at Marlie Farm in Shortgate, East Sussex on 3 December 2006. Nathan Winter was preparing a fireworks display for a Christmas lights ceremony in Eastbourne and was working outside one of the buildings on the farm when one of the fireworks caught fire. This caused a number of other fireworks to explode, and the fire spread through buildings on the site.

Firefighters arrived at the scene, including Mr Wembridge who was filming the blaze for training purposes, and Mr Wicker, who was erecting a standing fire hose to spray water on the flames. The fire reached a metal container illegally packed with fireworks, causing a huge explosion that killed both men and injured 20 others.

The metal container was being used to house fireworks before being shipped the Middle East, and was not authorised by the company’s licence to store fireworks. This licence was subsequently revoked by the HSE following its investigation into the incident.

HSE chief inspector of explosives, Neil Morton, said: “This case is a stark reminder of the terrible consequences of not following the correct procedures when handling hazardous material. If Alpha Fireworks had handled and stored the fireworks correctly, the fire and subsequent explosion would not have happened.

“Companies that work in the high-hazard industries must remember that regulations and standards are there to protect workers and the public. Complying with the law and following the well-established principles of good work practices when using and storing explosives can prevent people being killed or hurt.”

Following a five-week trial at Lewes Crown Court both Martin and Nathan Winter were found guilty of manslaughter on 16 December. Alpha Fireworks was found guilty of breaching reg.4 of the Manufacture and Storage of Explosive Regulations 2005, for failing to take adequate steps to prevent a fire, and reg.10 of the same Regulations, for storing fireworks without a licence. The company was sentenced on 14 December and was fined £30,000, but no costs were awarded.

The company had no previous convictions and complied with the HSE’s investigation.

The Fire Brigades Union, which represents the majority of fire crews in East Sussex, welcomed the manslaughter convictions. FBU brigade secretary for East Sussex, Steve Huggins, said: “These two men showed utter contempt for fire fighter and public safety and we welcome their conviction. Both men should pay heavily for what they did, but it is important to ensure that all the lessons are properly learned, so no one else is killed in similar circumstances.

“Nationally the monitoring and enforcement of fireworks regulations is patchy at best and non-existent at worse. There is very little co-ordination between the agencies, which are meant to be responsible for the regulations.

“We have major concerns with the use of shipping containers for the storage of fireworks. Containers are used across the country by people in the firework industry and any supermarket selling fireworks around 5 November.”

Mr Huggins concluded: “There are major concerns at the lack of training and preparation for fire fighters. The training gaps identified at the trial are not only in East Sussex but remain across the fire service three years after this tragedy.”