Reported by Lucy Bannerman in today’s Times:
A pregnant woman, her husband and their three-year-old son were killed in a house fire early yesterday as police who arrived before the fire brigade prevented neighbours from trying to save them. The woman screamed: “Please save my kids” from a bedroom window and neighbours tried to help but were beaten back by flames and were told by police not to attempt a rescue.
By the time firefighters got into the house in Doncaster, Michelle Colly, 25, her husband, Mark, 29, and son, Louis, 3, were dead. Their daughter, Sophie, 5, was taken to hospital and believed to be critically ill.
Davey Davis, 38, a friend of the family, said: “It was the most harrowing thing I have ever witnessed. Michelle was at the bedroom window yelling, ‘Please save my kids’ and we wanted to help but the police were pushing us back and not allowing us near. We were willing to risk our lives to save those kiddies but the police wouldn’t let us.
“Tempers were running very high, particularly with the women who were there, but the police were just saying we have to wait for the fire brigade because of health and safety.
“There were four or five police officers. They were here before the fire brigade. We heard the sirens and we came across to help but they wouldn’t let us.
“I thought the police were there to protect lives. At one time they would have have gone inside themselves to try and rescue them.
“When a family is burning to death in front of your eyes, rules should go out of the window – especially with kids. Everybody wanted to try and help.”
In a previous post about loss of nerve in our public services I said, referring to instances in which firemen and policemen had “broken procedure” to save life, that despite their personal courage “institutional gutlessness surrounded them, was embarrassed by them, and will kill off their like eventually. Poisoned soil does not long give forth good fruit.”
Seems like the poison has worked its way well in. Note: I do not know whether the Colly family could have been saved had the attempt been made while Mrs Colly was still alive to scream for someone to save her kids. A spokeswoman for the South Yorkshire Police said, “The senior officer in charge is confident we handled this incident as professionally as possible. In a situation like that you could end up with more deceased bodies than you had in the first place.”
One of the lesser known sights of London is the Watts Memorial in Postman’s Park. I gather it featured in the film Closer, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law. No, I am not being funny, suddenly veering off into a travelogue in the middle of a post about the deaths of a family. I wish there were something to laugh about. The memorial was set up by a Victorian artist, George Frederick Watts, to commemorate those who died saving others. It consists of hand made plaques each bearing the name of a person who sacrificed his or her life and a brief citation. Very quaint they are, with their crowded lettering with the extra-large initial capitals and little swirly plant motifs and curlicues in the corners. Even the names are quaint, laboriously given in full. Police Constables Percy Edwin Cook, Edward George Brown Greenoff, Harold Frank Ricketts and George Stephen Funnell are among them. I wonder what PC Percy Edwin Cook, for instance, who perished when he “Voluntarily descended high tension chamber at Kensington to rescue two workmen overcome by poisonous gas” would have made of his successors in the South Yorkshire force.
Perhaps the police spokeswoman was right. Perhaps if health and safety had been less comprehensively assured and the Colly incident handled rather less professionally, we would have ended up with more than the three “deceased bodies” – no, make that four, when you count the child expected to be born in two weeks – that we did end up with. Still, more than four dead bodies is quite a lot and quite unlikely, I cannot help thinking. And I also cannot help thinking that there is more to this than just counting the dead under different scenarios. If the critically injured five year old girl does survive she will be burdened by more than just the fact that her family died. She will eventually have to know that those who might have answered her mother’s last desperate appeal were held back on grounds of “health and safety.” Not theirs, obviously.
FURTHER UPDATE: There is a thoughtful discussion in the comments regarding several moral and practical questions, and whether the press accounts are to be trusted. Quite possibly not. Yet I must add that if the South Yorkshire police are trying to convince me that they are not abdicating responsibility in order to follow rote “health and safety” procedure (as commenter “sjv” put it), then best not claim, as they appeared to in the Mail report linked to in the word “other”, that the reason they will not tell us exactly how long elapsed between the arrival of the police and the arrival of the firemen is “‘data protection’ rules.”