Unbelievable: Woman left to die because of British "safety" rules

Death would be too kind for the guy responsible

A Lawyer who fell 45ft down a mine shaft died after fire chiefs refused to mount an immediate rescue operation because of health and safety fears. Alison Hume, 44, was left lying in agony in the cold and dark for eight hours with several broken bones.

A report into her death yesterday found she could have survived if rank-and-file firemen had been allowed to do their job and bring her out. One fireman had been lowered down while a paramedic was strapped up in a harness ready to follow.

But bosses refused to use a winch to lift out the mother-of-two because they were slavishly following rules which said the equipment could only be used to save their own staff. Instead they waited through the early hours of the morning for a police mountain rescue team to arrive.

Mrs Hume was lifted out but died shortly afterwards from a heart attack brought on by hypothermia.

Last night her stepfather Hugh Cowan, 69, said: ‘They need to ask why people are using health and safety as an excuse for failure, rather than a reason for success.’

The case is the latest example of emergency service personnel putting their safety ahead of those they are supposed to be rescuing. Ten-year-old Jordan Lyon, of Wigan, drowned in a pond in 2007 after two police community support officers said they were unable to help him due to health and safety regulations.

Earlier this year coroner David Roberts said the emergency services must be prepared to ‘risk their lives’ after hearing how red tape cost vital minutes during Derrick Bird’s Cumbrian gun massacre.

She was found by her teenage daughter before Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service arrived and fireman Alexander Dunn was lowered to the bottom of the shaft.

Mrs Hume was still conscious but had a collapsed lung, several broken ribs and a broken sternum.

While the rescue operation was in progress, group commander Paul Stewart arrived as a media relations officer. He assumed command after realising he was the most senior officer there.

His first move was to stop a paramedic who was already strapped in a harness from being lowered. And he refused to allow colleagues to rescue her using ropes because they had not received the correct training. Mr Stewart feared they could be sued if the mission failed.

Incredibly, he told a fatal accident inquiry that the operation had a ‘successful outcome’ because the casualty was ultimately removed from the shaft.

Mr Stewart is still in the fire service and is on the waiting list for promotion to divisional commander. Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service expressed ‘enormous regret’, but refused to apologise until after the report was published last night.

In the report Sheriff Desmond Leslie said Mrs Hume might have survived if she had been removed sooner. He said Mr Stewart and colleague William Thomson were ‘focused on self-justification for the action or non-action taken by them’ and did not reflect on lessons that could be learned from the tragedy. The sheriff added: ‘I found their evidence bullish, if not arrogant.’

The sheriff criticised the fire service's failure to recognise the urgency of a rescue, noting the firefighter had told the inquiry 'there was not a huge concern about the time'

Yesterday Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond ordered a fresh inquiry. Mrs Hume’s mother Margaret Cowan, 67, said ‘the public will lose all confidence in the fire service’ if the inquiry fails to ‘lead to something positive’. She added: ‘Some people have said to me that if the same thing happened again, they wouldn’t even phone 999 – they would get a rope and do the rescue themselves.’

And Mrs Hume’s father Ian McEwan described his daughter’s death as ‘a needless waste of life’. He said his granddaughter Jayne, 17, still had nightmares about finding her mother, adding: ‘She knew when she cried down to her mum that she was still alive.’

He added: ‘I hope no other family finds themselves in the same situation as we did.’ And Mr Cowan said he felt the fire service’s apology had been ‘forced upon them’.

He added: ‘I just feel have they been prompted by the fact that the First Minister has asked for an inquiry. ‘They did not seem interested in apologising yesterday or earlier today. It’s difficult to see whether I can honestly accept it under the circumstances.’

Former watch commander John Bowman – who had been ordered to rewrite the rule book on rope rescues weeks before the tragedy – yesterday spoke out against his former employers.

Mr Bowman, 52, had warned bosses that changing the rules to prevent firemen using ropes to rescue people was ‘a disaster waiting to happen’.

He said: ‘Many incidents you go to in the brigade don’t end with a successful resolution. Sometimes the person can be dead before you get there, sometimes you just can’t help people. This was not the case for Mrs Hume. It’s not the fire service’s finest hour.’

Last night the Chief Fire Officers Association said there was no uniform approach to the uses of winches in forces across Britain.

However, it said that health and safety legislation must not be ‘allowed to constrain incident commanders when making decisions in dynamic emergency situations’.


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