THE assertion by Don Ayling in last Wednesday’s Examiner that an explosion was at the root of the Booth fire cannot be dismissed without further examination – and neither can the opinion of experienced firemen who attended the fire.
What is absolutely certain though is that the initial blaze was the result of factory floor manager William Rhodes Senior not extinguishing his pipe before putting it inside his tweed coat pocket.
Having said that, the inquest failed abysmally to ask in-depth questions, the kind that would have firmly established beyond dispute the cause of the fire. There was a lot of prevaricating about where and how it started. Under questioning, owner Mr Booth himself ‘could not remember’ saying to a witness that day that it was ‘Mr Senior’s coat that was on fire.’
There were also other awkward questions that ought to have been answered, such as why the building had been inspected by council officials and given a fire certificate allowing it to be used as a factory after it had been converted from a warehouse.
Accidental death was a ‘convenient verdict,’ leaving much that had been neatly swept under carpet – and with no one to blame.
But the evidence of where the outbreak started is laid bare by a number of witnesses who saw flames coming from the office and up the stairs.
Annie Mitchell, of Rodger Lane Newsome said that she was on her bench on the second floor when one of the girls said ‘look.’ She saw flames coming from the office and left the building by the main staircase.
Vera Fisher, of Oak Tree Avenue in Lepton, said that she worked on the second floor.
She was there when the bell rang for work to begin. Five minutes later she noticed smoke in the centre of the floor near the staircase leading to the office. She saw Mr Thirkhill trying to put out some flames with an extinguisher. The flames came from the office.
When she eventually got out she heard a bang but did not know what it was.
Florrie Walsh said recently: "We got out and were on the steps outside when there was an explosion."
A number of people also gave witness to hearing the sound of an explosion but it always occurs after the initial outbreak.
The explosion’s cause remains something of a mystery but it seems that it gave such rapid progress to the flames that it has led to speculation about how the blaze started.
I will now point to a piece of very obscure evidence that was briefly presented at the inquest but was never pursued with further questions.
Bessie Whitley, of Swallow Lane in Golcar, was a cashier at Booth’s. She arrived at 8.15am when the building was already on fire.
It looks like some of her statement was edited from the report, for the next line reads: "The only flammable material kept on the premises was a drum of lubricating oil. This was in the air raid shelter in the in the basement which was saved."
The firemen believed that the seat of the fire was the basement where the boiler was. Could this be just a coincidence?
If Bessie’s statement could have been examined further we might have got a more detailed picture.
Was there really only one drum of lubricating oil stored in that large factory? Was it always stored in a safe place in a factory that showed little concern for health and safety or fire procedure?
"Even if it was in the basement, what about years of spillage and a potential fire track, like an ignitable fuse leading to a barrel of gunpowder. And what about the statement that ‘it was saved?’ Did they pull a full barrel of lubricating oil from the remains of a burned out building where every combustible thing had been incinerated? It sounds a bit odd to me!
There were many questions left unanswered which will always remain cause for speculation.
What disturbed me more was that fact that Mr Ayling’s father’s health was seemingly destroyed by what he saw in the mortuary and it is suspected by his family that this was the cause of his premature death.
His father was probably Booth’s 50th victim.