Accidental deaths ruling over pair who died during wedding fireworks explosion


Two people died in a blaze at a wedding caused by an "unexplained" explosion, an inquest jury has concluded.

Andrew Coates, 41, and Polly Connor, 46, were killed as they prepared a late evening fireworks display at the luxury home of Mr Coates's business partner near the shore of Lake Windermere.

Sounds of "snapping and popping" were heard not long after John Simpson, 61, tied the knot with his bride, Nicole Rothwell, 44, in Ecclerigg, Cumbria, on August 30 last year.

Before about 75 guests were due to sit down for the afternoon reception meal, Mr Simpson described "all hell breaking loose" with two large explosions and fireworks shooting off in all directions from the area of an on-site outbuilding.

The display organiser, father-of-one Mr Coates, and his assistant, mother-of-three Mrs Connor, both from Kendal, were inside the wooden outbuilding containing a store for the fireworks when it erupted into flames. The second explosion blew off the roof.

Firefighters were called to Larch Cottage where they found the bodies of the two victims near to the outbuilding entrance.

Insurance boss Mr Simpson and Mr Coates held a licence to store fireworks there via their business hobby venture, Stardust Fireworks.

Mr Coates was responsible for the practical side of the business and had worked as a display manager for a pyrotechnics firm.

The jury sitting in Kendal returned conclusions of accidental deaths.

They ruled that the explosion rendered both victims unable to exit the store as fire consumed the outbuilding and resulted in a fatal level of carbon monoxide.

In his closing remarks at the inquest at Castle Green Hotel, HM Coroner for Cumbria, David Roberts, noted it was "questionable" whether what amounted to a wooden shed next to a compartment of a vehicular garage was a "suitable structure" for a fireworks store.

He said the evidence showed there were "large amounts" of other material in the store, some of which were combustible.

He said: "The construction and the non-firework content of the store at the very least exacerbated the ensuing fire."

Mr Roberts said the storage licence granted by Cumbria County Council in 2008 was "deficient" as it did not specify the type of fireworks or store to be used.

Records of inspections were "sketchy", he added.

The coroner said he would write to the council's trading standards department and its chief executive to "carefully review" its licensing of explosive sites in the county.

The week-long inquest heard evidence from various experts who all agreed there was no evidence to show what caused the fireworks to ignite - some of which were on racks near to the outbuilding.

Stewart Myatt, a fireworks expert from the Health and Safety Laboratory, said the "most likely sequence of events" was that a live firework shell penetrated the partitioned wooden wall of the store from outside and hit a metal cabinet before exploding.

He speculated that Mr Coates and Mrs Connor may have entered the store to either find shelter from the exploding fireworks outside or to grab firefighting equipment.

He said he thought the explosion would have rendered them unconscious immediately and prevented them escaping the ensuing blaze.

Post-mortem examinations revealed the cause of both deaths was from the effects of an explosion and fire.

Fire investigator Alan Sowerby told the jury he was unable to identify the source of the fire but said the most probable cause was a firework discharging externally.

Mr Coates's wife, Rebecca, 41, described her husband as "a perfectionist" who was "incredibly safety conscious to the point of obsessiveness".

The self-employed builder had worked alongside qualified plumber Mrs Connor in various trade jobs, including a number of firework displays.

Mrs Connor's husband, Damien, 47, told the jury he met his wife in Macau more than 20 years ago where they both worked as racehorse work riders.

Mr Connor said the family had planned to go camping on the weekend of the tragedy but his wife took the display job after they had just paid a deposit for a holiday in Spain.

He too said his wife was "very safety conscious" and would not take risks.

In a statement issued following the inquest, Mr Simpson said: "The day of this accident was meant to be a celebration of my marriage to my wife Nicole and instead turned out to be the worst day of both our lives.

"Andy Coates was a good friend of mine for more than 25 years. I had known him since he was 16 and I am still coming to terms with what happened that day and the fact he is no longer with us. I miss him greatly.

"Our loss, however, pales into insignificance compared to that which has been suffered by the families of both Andy and Polly to whom I would wish to extend all my sympathy.

"All my wife and I hope for is that the conclusion of this inquest now provides them with a degree of closure, however small that may be."

Mrs Coates said: "I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of Andy's parents, my son and I to publicly thank all our family and friends who have supported us. Your love, actions and prayers have kept us going.

"The event that occurred forever changed our lives and we are thankful for the memories we have but we strive to move forward in our lives.

"Our one reassurance is that we have peace in knowing that we will see Andy again as our faith gives us this assurance."

She also thanked her legal team and the coroner for "such a thorough inquest".

Mrs Connor's mother, Penelope Benson, said her daughter led a "a joyful but all too brief a life".

She said: "She was a responsible, caring woman who impressed everyone with her kindness and helpfulnesss, and inspired love in her many friends.

"She had some fine achievements in her life but her family was what she valued most.

"We thank the coroner and his officers for the thorough, professional and sensitive way in which the inquest has been conducted, and the jury for their time."