Stafford fireworks blaze: The tragedy that could have been prevented
Stewart Staples and Simon Hillier died when SP Fireworks was razed to the ground in a catastrophic blaze four years ago.
It was the busiest time of year for fireworks boss Richard Pearson, with just days to go before Bonfire Night.
He had made several trips to China to buy supplies for the hectic three-month party season that started with Guy Fawkes Night and ended in Chinese New Year.
But by November 5 Pearson’s business, SP Fireworks, had been razed to the ground in a catastrophic fire.
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He was in a coma after suffering severe burns and two men – employee Simon Hillier and customer Stewart Staples – were dead after becoming trapped inside the blazing building.
Yesterday, the 44-year-old company director was convicted of their manslaughter following a five-week trial at Stafford Crown Court.
It was a tragedy no-one had seen coming.
Already the owner of a successful plastics company, in 2007 Pearson set up the fireworks firm and the following year in August helped with the pyrotechnics displays at the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing for the Olympic Games.
Buoyed by that experience, he set up training courses at the business on Tilcon Avenue industrial estate in Baswich, near Stafford.
He also staged demonstration evenings for customers and showcased his products at the NEC Birmingham.
Pearson believed himself to be so well-informed about safety issues that he ‘knew better’ than trading standards officers who made regular inspection visits to the shop and a rented storage site in Penkridge to ensure he was adhering to the strict regulations governing the sale of fireworks.
The prosecution accused the businessman of having a ‘cavalier’ attitude towards the handling and storage of fireworks.
The trial heard he told inspectors visiting the Baswich shop on October 16, 2014, that he had dismantled a Viper firework, which was banned in Europe, to see how much powder was inside.
When told he shouldn’t have done that, Pearson threw the fireworks at the officers in a fit of anger.
The incident is believed to have been a distraction tactic after the inspectors asked to see inside a locked upstairs room, believed to be piled high with fireworks. Pearson told them he had left the key at home.
On that visit, just two weeks before the explosion, the site held around 100kg, well within the 250kg maximum allowed by his licence.
The trading standards inspectors also visited the shipping container at Lower Drayton farm in Penkridge where the main bulk of his stock was stored on arrival in the UK before being brought to the shop for collection. Again all was in order.
But on October 27, three days before the fatal blast, the company took stock of 1,141 boxes of fireworks, weighing 20,000kg, and 18 boxes of mortars in a shipment from China.
When investigators visited the farm in the aftermath of the tragedy, 488 boxes were unaccounted for.
In all likelihood, the jury heard, the vast majority of these had been taken to the shop, explaining why the blaze and subsequent explosions took hold so quickly.
The prosecution alleged that Pearson had stored at least 10 times the amount of fireworks he was allowed to and that they were packed too closely together.
Prosecutor Allan Compton said: “Without these failures, we say that in all likelihood both Mr Hillier and Mr Staples would have survived the initial ignition as opposed to the sudden and fatal series of explosions.”
Post mortems revealed that father-of-three Mr Staples, a laboratory manager at Staffordshire County Council, and Mr Hillier, a father of one, who helped out Pearson after a kickboxing injury left him unable to work, died from smoke inhalation.
The cause of the initial ignition will never be known but the most likely explanation after hearing from almost 60 witnesses in the trial is that it was a spark from a Stanley knife being used by Mr Hillier to prepare mortar fuses.
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