A mum and her baby were moments from being crushed to death in a terrifying accident in a shop lift.
Hayley Melling had asked for assistance to reach the first floor at JD Sports at Deepdale Retail Park, Preston, with her one-year-old daughter.
But the pair were accidentally let into an empty lift shaft as another mum, Kerry Schofield, was coming down in the lift with her children, Preston Crown Court heard.
The terrified mum desperately pushed the oncoming lift upwards as horrified shoppers Terence Gargan and Martin Coe worked together to force the metal and glass lift door open to release them.
Dad-of-four Mr Gargan, who hurt his foot in the incident, told the Evening Post of the extraordinary ordeal, revealing he had been discharged from hospital days earlier after treatment for heart failure.
He said: “My wife took me shopping for some trainers because I was bored of being in the house. We were on our way out of the shop and heard screaming and shouting and a man was pulling on the door. I thought someone was having a panic in the lift but, as I looked through the glass panel, I saw the lady and pushchair with the lift coming down on top.
“You don’t think – you just help. I thought, ‘We need to open the door’ and we pulled as hard as we could to force it.
“As it opened it hit my toe. She was crouched down trying to hold the lift up with her hand. Breaking the door stopped it – I dread to think what would have happened if it hadn’t. The other mum and her children slid down through the opening and we carried them out. They were hysterical. I was scared myself. We just left – I’ve not been in a lift since.”
Mr Gargan, from Newlands Avenue, Lancaster, rang the store to see how the mum and baby were when he got home, but despite his heroics, he says nobody has been in touch since, apart from the firm, which paid him £700 compensation from a civil hearing for the injury to his foot.
JD Sports Fashion Ltd has been fined £66,667 and ordered to pay £13,896.25 costs and a £100 surcharge.
Preston Crown Court heard a safety mechanism meant the door to the lift would not open if it was already in use.
However, a member of staff obtained the over-ride key and unlocked the door, allowing Miss Melling, from Blackpool, into the space with her pushchair, back in September 2012.
Prosecuting, Sophie Cartwright said: “But for the intervention of other shoppers, it is highly probable that Hayley Melling and her infant daughter would have sustained fatal or serious injuries.”
She described a number of safety failures including two faults with the lift being reported almost a year earlier in 2011 – including an intermittent fault with the door lock at ground level – but no repairs were undertaken.
A HM Specialist Inspector found the employee had “defeated one of the normal safeguards” on the lift by using the over-ride key and staff were routinely using the emergency release key to “circumvent the faults present”.
Preston Council’s environmental health team brought a prosecution against the shop under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Defending, David Travers said: “This was undoubtedly a very unpleasant and distressing incident. The company profoundly regrets the terrifying experience for Miss Melling and has taken this incident very seriously. There is a testimony of that not just by the steps subsequently taken, but by the presence in court of really all the senior people in the company who relate to health and safety.”
Judge Pamela Badley, sentencing, said: “Miss Melling did what she could to call for help – you can imagine the rising sense of panic at that time. Fortunately other members of public were able to force open the lift access door and I’m sure everybody is very grateful to those individuals.
“Had it not been for intervention of other shoppers, it’s highly probable they would have sustained terrible injuries; in fact the whole episode was traumatic for Miss Melling.”
She said the “sloppy practice” of staff using the over-ride key, which was supposed to be for emergency situations, because they believed the door was sticking, had given rise to “inherent dangers”.
But she acknowledge the firm, which otherwise has a good safety record, had been “severely chastened” and had since put into place better practices. A spokesman for JD Sports said: “We deeply regret the incident and apologise for the distress caused to the individuals involved. Following the incident, JD Sports undertook a thorough review of its Health & Safety protocols and implemented changes to the processes and systems within its stores to ensure that incidents of this nature should not occur again.”