Family dies as blaze engulfs farmhouse

Crew breaks strike to battle Wiltshire blaze

Firefighters broke their strike in a vain attempt to save a mother and her three children from a ferocious blaze at an isolated farmhouse in Wiltshire early yesterday.

The 29-year-old woman, her sons aged 13 and 14, and her nine-year-old daughter, were trapped upstairs by the collapse of the staircase at their home in Sleight, near Devizes. Police were last night trying to contact the children's father to inform him.

There was no suggestion that the strike had contributed to the tragedy, as the area is covered by retained crews, who were working as usual. They were at the scene within 10 minutes. They were joined by a unionised crew who broke the strike when they heard lives were in danger.

There were no further fatalities by yesterday afternoon, although military sources confirmed that green goddesses had handled more than 2,000 call-outs. Retained firefighters attended other incidents.

There were 500 false alarms yesterday, but this was fewer hoax call-outs than on Wednesday, after warnings that offenders face tough penalties.

The busiest region was the north-west, where military personnel attended more than 170 fires over a 24-hour period, while in the south-west green goddesses attended 18 such incidents.

Thirty-five firefighters battled to save the Wiltshire family, but were beaten back by the flames. A man who escaped the blaze was taken to Princess Margaret hospital in Swindon with burns to his hands and face.

Wiltshire fire brigade's chief fire officer, Neil Wright, said 15 of the 16 local stations were manned by retained firefighters working as normal. Unionised members at the 16th station were the firefighters who broke the strike.

He added: "[Firefighters] did know there were people in there and they made dramatic efforts to get into the premises to rescue those people, but the ferocity of the fire made that impossible."

The local vicar, the Rev Paul Wilkinson, described the blaze as a tremendous shock. "It will be felt right through Devizes and will have a great effect on a very close-knit community."

Malcolm Irons, headteacher of Devizes secondary school, said staff as well as pupils were traumatised by the loss of the two boys. A memorial service would be held on Monday. He added: "Our thoughts are with the remaining family. The boys were the life and soul of the party: they were energetic, friendly kids. The children are laying tributes to them and the mound of flowers in our quad is growing by the minute."

In Chipperfield, near Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, eight men and women, aged 16 to 52, were arrested when a police car came under attack while accompanying a green goddess to a car fire.

Both vehicles turned back and let the car burn out. Sixty-seven officers - including trained negotiators and firearms officers - were at the scene for almost nine hours, but police are still not sure whether a firearm or other weapon was involved.

They are investigating a possible link to the arrest of a man from the area last week.

Three Staffordshire police officers are being considered for bravery awards after breaking into a burning flat in Tamworth and dragging a 58-year-old woman to safety, while military and retained firefighters put out a large fire at a carpet warehouse in Rugby, Warwickshire. Two teenage boys were arrested but released without charge.

A 17th-century mansion in Hay-on-Wye, central Wales, was destroyed by a fire, and in Manchester yesterday engineers were deciding whether to destroy a listed building which was badly damaged when fireworks stored there caught alight.


Tania Branigan

The GuardianTramp

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