Preston soldier died after tank explosion on firing range, coroner told

Corporal Darren Neilson
Corporal Darren Neilson
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Two British soldiers died after their tank exploded during a training exercise on a firing range, a coroner has heard.

Corporals Matthew Hatfield and Darren Neilson of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), died from injuries they suffered at the Castlemartin range in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on June 14.

At an inquest opening on Friday, the coroner was told the provisional cause of death for Cpl Hatfield was "burns", while Cpl Neilson suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of blast-related injuries.

Both were experienced career soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A police-led joint investigation with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and a separate Ministry of Defence (MOD) service inquiry are currently under way into the circumstances.

Detective Chief Inspector Ross Evans, of Dyfed Powys Police, gave the coroner further details of what happened after emergency services were called to "a mechanical explosion" on the range, at 3.30pm.

He said it was thought Cpl Neilson, 31, of Preston, Lancashire, was the tank commander and "we believe positioned within the turret" at the time of the blast.

Cpl Hatfield, 27, from Amesbury, Wiltshire, was the armoured vehicle's operator and was "loading the ammunition in the tank".

He was taken to Morriston Hospital, Swansea, but the married father-of-one died the following day.

His colleague, also a married father with a young daughter, was taken to University Hospital Wales, Cardiff, but also died on June 15.

Both men were identified by their wives, Birmingham and Solihull Coroner's Court was told.

Mr Evans said: "At 3.30pm on Wednesday, June 14, the emergency services were summoned to a mechanical explosion at Castlemartin - it's an MOD firing range, in Pembrokeshire.

"Prior to that, a training exercise had been taking place.

"Four men were taken to hospital as a result, and two have since passed away.

"An investigation has since commenced to look into the circumstances of the incident."

Louise Hunt, senior coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, was also told that the police and HSE were working closely with the MOD on a service inquiry "to prevent any repeat incident".

Mr Evans said the MOD Defence Safety Authority had started its investigation on June 27 and was not expected to finish until February next year.

Ms Hunt offered her condolences to the soldiers' families, who were present at the hearing, and told them a pre-inquest review would take place on February 12 next year.

She said a full inquest lasting up to three weeks would be held in Solihull, setting a provisional date of July 2 next year.

Releasing the bodies for funerals, the coroner addressed Cpl Hatfield's mother and said: "There's no longer any need to retain their bodies, and I will today be releasing both.

"I understand you are planning a cremation.

"I do so, so arrangements can be made for you to have your funeral, because it's important you are able to start that process."

The soldier's mother said: "I'm glad now, I've got Matthew back."

Ms Hunt replied: "You've got Matthew back."

The RTR is the oldest tank unit in the world and is based at Tidworth in Wiltshire.

This recent incident came five years after a 21-year-old soldier died when he was shot in the head after live machine gunfire was wrongly directed towards a "safe haven" area at Castlemartin.

Castlemartin Range, spread over 5,930 acres (2,400 hectares), is used to carry out direct-fire live gunnery exercises for tanks and armoured vehicles.

Coroner Ms Hunt said she had been "directed to conduct the inquests" by the chief coroner, and has previous experience in convening hearings into the deaths of armed forces' personnel.

She held inquests in 2015 into the deaths of three Army reservists on an SAS test march in the Brecon Beacons in 2013.

More recently, Ms Hunt heard the case of serving British soldier Private Jamie Lee Sawyer, who died on a kayaking course off the coast of Cyprus while deployed with the United Nations in 2015.