A care home boss has expressed his "deep regret" after his company was fined and ordered to pay costs of more than £400,000 for fire safety breaches after an elderly resident was killed in a fire.
Irene Cockerton, 87, died from smoke inhalation after a fire started two doors away from her flat at Gibson Court in Manor Road North, Hinchley Wood, in the early hours of September 30, 2011.
- FROM JUNE 2014: Coroner rules fatal fire at Gibson Court retirement home in Hinchley Wood was 'tragic accident'
She was the only resident not to reach safety and was found by rescue crews the following day in her wardrobe, where she is believed to have taken shelter.
The blaze had started in flat 25 of the home after a resident's portable television caught fire, and quickly spread across the roof space.
Within 75 minutes, part of the roof had collapsed.
Photos taken by firefighters show the extent of the damage on September 30
FirstPort Retirement Property, formerly Peverel Management Services, operates the home and pleaded guilty in July last year to four offences under the Regulatory Reform Order 2005 after a case brought by the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
These were for a failure to make a proper fire risk assessment of the building, a failure to take general fire precautions, a failure to maintain fire precautions including fire barriers in the roof space and a failure to properly train staff in carrying out fire risk assessments and following emergency procedures.
Sentencing the company today at Guildford Crown Court, Judge Stephen Climie said Mrs Cockerton had suffered a significant heart attack before moving into the home, and her mobility was becoming "increasingly restricted", requiring assistance going down stairs and could only walk short distances.
She had also been diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
An aerial photo of the home shows how the roof had collapsed during the fire
A 'stay put' policy was in place at the home, which was intended to be "a protective policy", which was deemed "more risky" than causing anxiety to residents by evacuating them.
At an inquest into Mrs Cockerton's death in 2014, Surrey coroner Richard Travers said the fire was initially considered to be manageable, and house manager Marion Debeer mirrored that fact by giving tea and biscuits to residents rather than evacuating them.
Judge Climie today said the "near total destruction of the roofing" had been down to the fact that there were no external vents from residents' kitchens, and they were instead vented into the roof space, which over the years had built up deposits of grease and oil from cooking.
He added that the firm "fell below the standard to be expected", as he handed them a fine of £120,000 for each of the first two offences – relating to failures to make a proper risk assessment and take general fire precaution - along with £80,000 and £40,000 for the latter two charges.
Coroner Richard Travers had described Peverel's fire risk assessment as "pitiful, flawed and inaccurate" in the 2014 inquest
The company was also ordered to pay £100,000 in court costs, bringing the total to £460,000.
Passing sentence, Judge Climie also commended firefighters for their bravery in difficult circumstances on the night of the fire.
After the sentencing, Nigel Howell, chief executive of FirstPort, said that he would be writing to Mrs Cockerton’s family to express his "deep regret".
He said: "We are sincerely sorry for and deeply regret the fire in Gibson Court in 2011 that had the most tragic of consequences.
"Our thoughts remain with the family of Mrs Cockerton through what must have been a very difficult time."
He added that the company had "co-operated fully with the investigations, accepted our responsibility and entered guilty pleas" as he reassured current residents and their families that they had improved procedures.
Gibson Court only reopened in summer 2013 following the fatal fire
Mr Howell said: "We have new owners, a completely new management team and, as the judge acknowledged, a much-improved approach to safety including policies, procedures and training.
"Again we are sorry for the fire, have applied the lessons and safety is our number 1 priority."
Nigel Gray, assistant group commander at SFRS, said his thoughts were also with Mrs Cockerton’s family today.
He said: "A fire which began in a television set spread rapidly across the retirement home’s entire roof and became a devastating blaze which forced firefighters to return several times to a burning building to rescue vulnerable residents and sadly led to the death of one of them.
"The fine imposed in this case is one of the biggest that we know of for a breach of fire safety regulations and we hope it sends a clear message to businesses to take seriously their responsibilities to keep people safe from fire.
"We will always work with businesses to help them comply with fire safety laws but where we find breaches which risk lives or serious injury we won’t hesitate to prosecute."
For more stories see www.surreycomet.co.uk/gibsoncourtfire
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