A terrified mum had to throw her baby to safety from a blazing block of flats owned by Lancashire’s former children’s services chief, a court has heard.
Ex-county councillor Vali Patel appeared before Preston Magistrates’ Court where he admitted a string of seven fire safety charges relating to a block of properties he owns in the city.
Mr Patel, who refused to speak to a Post reporter, could potentially face up to two years in jail.
Magistrates heard a fire alarm system at the flats was not connected to a power source, rendering it useless, and an electricity meter was placed in a stairwell that was the residents’ only fire exit.
The blaze broke out in the early hours of April 9, this year, at an address the former Labour councillor owns in Rutland Street, Fishwick, which comprises of three flats and the Little Wonders children’s nursery.
The court heard how mum Aisha Gohar, 32, climbed onto a first floor ledge and had to throw her two-year-old daughter Fathima to the baby’s dad Kashif, 34, after the fire blocked their only other exit out.The flames were sparked by a faulty electricity meter that was placed at the bottom of the communal stairs - which prevented the residents’ exit.
Patel, 74, of Lower Bank Road, Fulwood, is responsible for fire safety at the property by law in his role as a landlord.
Warren Spencer, prosecuting for Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “On April 9 there was a serious fire in the premises which started in an electricity meter at the bottom of a communal staircase, that effectively prevented any escape from the premises.
“The charges are drafted to take account meters should not be placed on the escape route as it effectively rules out the opportunity to escape and get to a place of safety.
“As a result of this fire, two other residents had to be rescued and it did result in a lady having to go out onto the ledge of a first floor window and throw her baby to her husband, who was on the street below. The mother and child spent the night in hospital with smoke inhalation.”
The court heard it was later found no fire risk assessment has taken place.
Mr Spencer added: “A further aggravating feature was when these premises were purchased by Mr Patel he put in an application for building regulations, and in that outlined there would be sufficient fire doors and adequate detectors, which there weren’t, and more seriously, working fire alarms.
“When the alarm system was checked there was no power to the panel so it was completely ineffective.”
Mr Patel admits failing to comply with fire regulations, placing a person at risk of death or serious injury, relating to fire doors, locks on emergency doors, providing emergency exit routes, and failing to ensure that the premises and facilities were subject to a suitable system of maintenance.
Magistrates deemed their sentencing powers insufficient for such a serious case and committed the matter to Preston Crown Court, where Patel will appear on January 15.
Shoyab Umar, who runs the Little Wonders nursery, said the building was not affected by the blaze but did not wish to comment further.
'I was thinking if anything were to happen to them'
Dad-of-one Kashif Gohar, 34, has spoken of his terror at having to rescue his wife Aisha, 32, and daughter Fathima, two, from their blazing flat.
The taxi driver was working in the city centre when Aisha, who was struggling to breathe, made a horrifying phone call telling him she was trapped inside with their toddler.
He raced home in minutes and was met by thick smoke pouring from their lounge window.
Kashif desperately tried to climb the wall to the first floor flat to get to them but couldn’t.
He recalls: “They are my world, it was horrible. I can’t put it into words.
“I was thinking if anything happens to them it would destroy me.”
Aisha adds: “We were alerted by the smoke. Fathima was asleep. I opened the door to see what it was and it just poured into our front room. We couldn’t breathe. I woke her up as we tried to get out. I felt so scared.
“I thought we were finished.
“Fathima cried for a while but then she stopped. The smoke was getting in her lungs and we were both about to fall unconscious.”
Kashif frantically called the emergency services and screamed for their neighbours to help, adding: “My wife and baby were in a burning flat and the people on the phone were just asking questions, there was lots of noise and I was panicking.”
He told Aisha who was sitting on a window ledge with little Fathima, to throw her to him.
He said: “We had no other option. I caught her thankfully.”But Aisha was still stuck and Kashif and a neighbour used a work ladder to try and reach her but it was too small.
Both men had to climb onto the neighbour’s van and balance the ladder on it to get her out.
“I would do anything to get them out,” he said.
After Aisha and Fathima spent the night in hospital, the couple, who married four years ago, struggled to find somewhere to stay.
Most of their possessions were destroyed by smoke, though they were able to salvage their passports.
They stayed in a hotel before finding a temporary student house to sty in for three weeks.
They now live in a different property in St Andrew’s Road, Deepdale.
Kashif recalls: “We basically had to start from scratch as we had no house insurance.
“The landlord gave us £1,500 towards our possessions which I wasn’t really that happy with.
“I don’t want him to go to prison but I do want him and other landlords to learn lessons from this that you can’t cut corners to save a few pounds because people’s lives are at risk.
“I’m sure he did not do it intentionally but he does need to be punished.”
The couple thanked local people who donated some toys to Fathima after hearing about their plight on social media.
Vali Patel's council career
Vali Patel made waves as a Labour councillor, a party he remained with for 17 years until being “forced” from his own seat.
After joining the council in the late 1990s, representing Preston Central East, the father-of-one served as a cabinet member for social services in 2001 before becoming the council’s chairman in 2003, making him the first Asian man to hold the role.
In 2004 he was chosen as the winner of the Lloyds TSB Asian Jewel Award 2004 for Public Service Excellence (Northern), recognising the achievement of Asian men and women in the community.
The following year he was appointed as Cabinet Member for Organisational Development, reviewing numbers of county council staff, their professional development, the promotion of good industrial relations and health and safety within the authority.
In 2007 he became cabinet member for children and young people but the following year was deselected for his Preston Central South seat by his own party.
In 2009, Patel quit his post as cabinet member for schools at Lancashire County Council to go it alone at the elections and stood as an independent candidate against the Labour party.
He is also known for his involvement with Preston Muslim Forum.