Former Navy man from Wakefield tragically died after dropping cigarette which ignited clothing

A former Royal Navy officer died after dropping a cigarette at his Wakefield home which ignited his clothes and left him with severe burns.

Neighbours battled to save 86-year-old Eric Shepherd, after they realised that a fire had taken hold in the living room of his home in Hudswell Street, Wakefield, on the evening of January 18, 2017.

An inquest held today (30.08.17) at Wakefield Coroner’s Court heard evidence from West Yorkshire Fire Service’s Fire Investigation Officer Ian Firth.

Mr Firth told the court how three engines from Wakefield, Ossett and Normanton stations had attended the mid terrace house after receiving a call to the Control Room at 22.34 hrs.

The Fire Service was alerted by Carelink after Mr Shepherd, who lived alone, had pressed the pendant around his neck.

Before the arrival of the Fire Service two neighbours attempted to help after becoming aware of the fire.

One man smashed the glass panel in Mr Shepherd’s front door with a brick to get inside before pulling down one of the curtains, using it to smother the flames on Mr Shepherd, who was curled up in the foetal position close to the armchair where it’s believed he had been smoking.

The second man applied a wet blanket to Mr Shepherd, whilst a third neighbour then came to help with a kitchen fire extinguisher.

The smoke alarm was sounding, the coroner’s court was told.

Firefighters arrived on the scene and took over but sadly Mr Shepherd was pronounced dead by an Ambulance paramedic at 22.47 hrs.

Mr Firth attended the premises on the evening to begin an investigation into the cause of the fire.

He told the coroner’s court that there was little fire damage to the living room and its furniture, but there was some fire damage to the carpet and around the armchair and he examined the burn patterns.

Mr Firth said he was able to conclude that the fire started at low level around the front or side of the armchair which Mr Shepherd was sat in.

He also observed that there was cigarette ends underneath the chair.

The court heard that Mr Shepherd, who was frail and had mobility difficulties and was being treated for respiratory illness, had fastened a kitchen roll and toilet tissue to the armchair to use when needed.

Mr Firth said he believed Mr Shepherd had dropped a lit cigarette which had either ignited these combustible items or Mr Shepherd’s jogging bottoms first.

He told the court that it was Mr Shepherd’s clothing that caused the fire to spread.

A West Yorkshire Police detective gave evidence that there weren’t any suspicious circumstances surrounding the fire.

Philip Holden, Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire Eastern District, also heard that Mr Shepherd’s daughter had recently been to see her father and had seen him drop a cigarette and struggle to retrieve it, so she had warned him about the dangers.

However, Mr Shepherd’s family largely lived in southern England and his wife had had to go into a care home.

The Coroner also considered evidence from a post-mortem examination which showed Mr Shepherd had suffered 90 per cent burns to his body.

A toxicology report and a GP’s report were also admitted in evidence.

The Coroner concluded that Mr Shepherd had died from smoke inhalation, circulatory shock and thermal injuries due to the fire and that ischaemic heart disease had been a contributory factor.

He said: “It was likely that he was sat in the armchair in the living room and dropped a lit cigarette that caused combustible items present to ignite including a kitchen towel and clothing.”

He recorded a verdict that Mr Shepherd’s death was accidental and thanked WYFRS Fire Investigation Team and West Yorkshire Police for their thorough investigations.

Following the inquest, Deputy Chief Fire Officer for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Dave Walton said: “This was a truly tragic case and our deepest condolences are with Mr Shepherd’s family.

“He was a proud man who had served a career in the Royal Navy before working in security and the court heard that he was devoted to the care of his wife until she had to move into a care home.

“Mr Shepherd had worked on submarines and travelled the world with the Royal Navy, and this is a terribly sad end to what must have been a colourful life.

“It’s a fact that smoking, mobility issues and living alone are reoccurring elements we see in fire deaths, especially among older generations.

“We hope the reporting of this case will go some way in raising awareness of the dangers among the public and prevent a similar tragedy happening again.”

General safety advice to prevent a smoking related fire in the home

  • Never smoke in bed. Take care when you’re tired – it’s very easy to fall asleep while your cigarette is still burning and set furniture alight
  • Never smoke indoors when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If your lit cigarette starts a fire you could be less able to escape.
  • Put it out, right out!  Make sure your cigarette is fully extinguished.
  • Fit a smoke alarm and test it weekly. A working smoke alarm can buy you valuable time to get out, stay out and call 999.
  • Never leave lit cigarettes, cigars or pipes unattended – they can easily overbalance as they burn down.
  • Use a proper, heavy ashtray that can’t tip over easily and is made of a material that won’t burn.