Teen girls who were smoking behind shop that went up in flames killing fireman 'panicked'
Two teenage girls who had been smoking cigarettes at the back of a city centre shop, which went up in flames killing a firefighter, said they were "panicking and upset" upon seeing the "commotion", an inquest has heard.
One of the teenagers, who was 15 at the time, went on to be charged after firefighter and father-of-two Stephen Hunt died while attempting to put out the fire at Paul's Hair World in Oldham Street in Manchester on July 13, 2013.
The youngster, who is now 17 and cannot be named for legal reasons, was charged with committing arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered, but the charge was later dropped by prosecutors.
Mr Hunt, 38, a firefighter with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, was one of about 50 firefighters who tackled the blaze, but got into difficulties while inside the building.
The eleven jurors sitting at the inquest held at Manchester's Civil Justice Centre were told that the two girls, who had both been 15, had made their way to the rear doors of the building at around 2.38pm before each lighting a cigarette.
One of the girls told police she had smoked her cigarette before docking it out on the adjacent wall.
Senior coroner for Manchester Nigel Meadows said: "She maintained that she thought both cigarette ends were out. (The girl) said that she always checked if out and was sure it was completely out."
The girl said she had also noticed a row of cigarette butts under the door and had pulled a leaflet from the door which she read and then pushed back.
Mr Meadows, in his opening to the jury, said that before the girls left they had not noticed any smouldering smoke from under the door.
The girls, who are now aged 17, said they made their way to the Afflecks building, before noticing "commotion" outside and the fire engines.
Jurors were told that they wondered if it could have been them who had started the fire and became "upset".
After speaking to a friend who advised then to go back to the scene, they spoke with officers.
The jurors were told that the second girl described the door having been jammed with paper and that both girls had smoked a cigarette each.
But she said she did not see her friend push it under the door.
Mr Meadows said that the history of the case was "complex" and that products being stored at the building were flammable.
The rear of the building where the fire was to start was largely used for product storage.
He added that the weather that day had been around 28 degrees.
Jurors were told that the first sign of smoke was at 2.46pm - around one minute after the girls had left the area.
The first call to the emergency services had been made at 2.49pm - around four minutes after the fire was discovered by an employee who noticed the smoke, describing the flames as being five ft in height.
Attempts were made to extinguish the fire as customers were evacuated.
The inquest was told that Mr Hunt and firefighter Jeremy Jones, both wearing breathing apparatus, had entered through the rear door of the building at around 8pm and were told to make their way to the top of the stairs.
Mr Hunt had been carrying a hand-held radio.
Mr Meadows said: "They were told to fight the fire from the top of the stairs. Firefighter Jones said the temperature recorded was around 50C but felt hotter."
He added that they were relieved by two other firefighters at around 8.30pm and they passed each other.
"The building was full of smoke and steam, visibility was virtually nil. They were in there for about half an hour before two other firefighters were sent in. They followed a hose in and met Stephen and Firefighter Jones who then began to leave the building."
Mr Meadows added: "It seems that Stephen and Firefighter Jones then took a wrong turn and made their way to the stair area on the other side of the building.
"At some point they became separated. Firefighter Jones became disoriented, crawling on his hands and knees."
Jurors were told that the two firefighters who had just entered had decided to exit because the scene did not match their brief.
Mr Meadows continued: "It would seem that shouts were heard coming from inside by those outside. It was then recognised that Stephen and firefighter Jones were missing."
They were discovered at around 8.40pm and removed from the premises.
Mr Jones survived but Mr Hunt who was taken to the Manchester Royal Infirmary died after attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
The jury was told that he died from the effects of heat.
An initial investigation by two other fire services determined that the fire had been started deliberately by use of a naked flame.
But a further expert said that it could not rule out the possibility that the fire was started accidentally.
Mr Meadows said that the prosecution decided not to proceed with the charge.
The inquest continues.
Mr Hunt's mother Susan Veevers paid tribute to her son who she said had a "thirst for life" and who had served in the army prior to becoming a firefighter.
She said his role within the fire service had, "provided him with a chance to serve".
She told the hearing: "He loved being a firefighter and he loved being with his other family. He was determined to go places with the fire service. It's easy for me to talk about how an amazing dad he is because he was."
Fighting back tears, she added: "As a mother I will never recover from the loss of Stephen.
"The loss of Stephen has been devastating for our family. He was the entertainer, the mickey-taker, the problem solver.
"The day Stephen died, a part of me died with him. He is truly loved and missed every single day."