SPRINKLER SYSTEM NOT WORKING – in gutted warehouse

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With three firefighters still missing presumed dead and one confirmed dead, it emerged yesterday that the sprinkler system was not working in the central area of Friday’s fatal blaze in Warwickshire.

The installer of the system into the now gutted vegetable packaging plant in Atherstone on Stour, Sydney Dawson, said ‘75 per cent of sprinkler heads’ had been fitted.

Dawson, who did not complete the job after the company he had the contract with went bust, added: ‘You can’t partially employ a water misting system.’

He said: ‘We hadn’t actually fitted the main discharge pump, which pressurises the system. That was still down in the warehouse.’

Meanwhile, fire chiefs announced yesterday that the fire had sufficiently cooled and they were able to commence a planned 36-hour ‘inch-by-inch’ search to recover the three missing firefighters and ‘any other bodies that may be there’.

Nine specialist teams have been gathered from around the country for the massive search and rescue operation and to look for evidence that may establish what caused the fire, which is being treated as suspicious.

Experts will also be investigating why the crews went into the warehouse while it was still burning.

Vegetable packing and distribution firm Wealmoor Atherstone Ltd currently owns the site, where 300 people are employed.

Local residents have alleged that many immigrant workers were regularly bussed in from Birmingham and many slept near or in the plant.

People in the small town said the four retained firefighters may have risked their lives because they believed there were people inside the building.

At a news conference yesterday Assistant Chief Officer Jon Hall, of Hereford and Worcester Fire Service, said crews would be using heat-seeking equipment and specialist digging equipment to get through the rubble of the building.

He warned that the building was still collapsing, adding ‘It’s still moving, we know it’s moving, and that’s why you’ll see monitoring equipment so we know exactly what parts of the building are moving and when.

‘Particularly in the current weather where it heats up and cools down overnight there’s still a lot of movement in that building. It’s quite a complex search operation.’

He added: ‘The crews always want to do their best but it has an added poignancy when it is their own colleagues they are searching for.’

Allegations have been made that, due to cuts and fire service reorganisation, firefighters lacked sufficient training and equipment, to deal with the risks involved when confronted with a massive blaze in the type of construction on the trading estate.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said on Saturday: ‘We are devastated by the loss of our colleague who died in the line of duty in Warwickshire. We are deeply concerned about the three firefighters who remain missing.

‘Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues who have been stunned by these events.

‘This could be the worst loss the fire service has faced in decades. Our service is traumatised by what has happened.

‘Deaths in the line of duty touch everyone who works in the fire service. Deaths within the fire service family are felt very deeply by everyone in the service, across the world, not only in the UK.’