Eyewitness describes the moment 'ferocious' fire erupted from tank fatally wounding two soldiers

Corporals Darren Neilson
Corporals Darren Neilson
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An eyewitness has described to an inquest the shocking moment a “ferocious” fire erupted from the top of a British Army tank, leaving two soldiers fatally wounded.

Corporals Darren Neilson and Matthew Hatfield, both of the Royal Tank Regiment, died of their injuries after an explosion in their tank at a firing range in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on June 14, 2017.

Cpl Neilson, 31, from Preston, was the tank commander and was thrown from Challenger 2 during the blast, while Cpl Hatfield, 27, from Wiltshire, was loading ammunition.

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Two other crew, Warrant Officer Stuart Lawson and Trooper Michael Warren, survived.

From his viewpoint in a nearby range observation tower, Captain Thomas Nye, also with RTR, described what he saw, and said: “So they’ve loaded...and then fired.

“I initially didn’t think it had fired, it didn’t look like the gun had recoiled.

“I saw what I thought was a black bag – (the gun) charges come in a black bag – come down the side of the tank.

“What it later turned out was that Cpl Neilson had coveralls on and they’d come off as he’d been blown through the turret.”

The captain, who on the day was senior range control officer, appeared emotional as he described the next moments as a blaze shot from the tank’s turret to a coroner’s court in Solihull, West Midlands.

He said: “It was a couple of seconds and then a really violent fire erupted from both hatches at the top of the tank.

“The operator’s side was a lot more ferocious and burned between three to five seconds.”

The officer, who joined the Army in 2014 and was still then a lieutenant, said he tried to raise the crew on the radio, without a response.

An armoured military ambulance headed towards the scene and a rescue operation, for which the regiment was well-drilled, swung into action.

Cpt Nye said: “There was an element of debate or wonder as to whether to enter the tank.

“Nobody knew what had happened inside that tank, whether other ammunition was on fire.”

A fire extinguisher device, which “sucks the oxygen from the turret”, was thrown inside the vehicle.

Cpl Neilson was found at the side of the tank and moved 100 metres away, where he was found to be in cardiac arrest.

As other personnel cleared an area for air ambulances to land, civilian paramedics began arriving within a few minutes.

The inquest hearing continues today.