Pensioner who left burning cigarette ends in cardboard box died after bungalow set alight

A pensioner who would sit and smoke from a chair in his conservatory at his Chorley home died accidentally after cigarette butts he dumped in a cardboard box set alight, an inquest heard today.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 11:15 am

89-year-old pensioner Harold Smalley was living alone when neighbours alerted the emergency services of a fire at his Jenny Lane home back in the early hours of May 25.

Coroner Mr Richard Taylor today ruled that the elderly man, who had lost his wife just months before the incident, died accidentally after cigarette butts dumped in a cardboard box developed into a fire that would later engulf his High Wheelton home in flames.

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The pensioner died at a fire at his home on Jenny Lane in May

A neighbour called the emergency services after their dog started barking at the flames that were seen from the conservatory at the back of the house.

Fire officers arrived at the detached bungalow on May 25 this year just after 12 am, to find the pensioner lying face down on the floor in front of the door to the conservatory.

Incident Intelligence Officer for the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, Michael Angland told the inquest this afternoon that he was "visibly already dead" by the time crews arrived.

A consultant radiologist who examined Harold's body suggested that the cause of death was pneumonitis, inflammation of lung tissue caused by smoke inhalation, in a statement read in Preston coroner's court today, October 13.

Fire crews found Harold already dead by the time they arrived

The inquest was told that interviews conducted with neighbours, friends and family of Harold, a retired funeral operative, said he would "regularly smoke from a chair in the corner of his conservatory".

And a close friend noted that she had seen the 89-year-old had only started throwing his used cigarette butts into his cardboard recycling box in the weeks leading up to his death but said nothing about it.

After investigation, detectives from Lancashire Constabulary confirmed that there was no evidence of third party involvement in the cause of the fire.

They added that they were told by friends that Harold would "empty his ashtray" into a recycling box he kept at the side of his chair.

It is understood that the pensioner was awoken by the sound of the fire and went to investigate the blaze, which had already started seeping through to the adjoining kitchen.

The inquest heard that he became possibly confused and went to open the door joining the kitchen and conservatory together instead of leaving the property through the front door at the other end of the house.

He was "overcome with smoke" and was thought to have collapsed, leaving him unable to escape the blaze.

The fire was already 'well developed' by the time crews arrived at Harold's home and it is thought the disused cigarette butts could have been smouldering for hours before developing into flames.

Incident Intelligence Officer for the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, Michael Angland said: "By the time crews arrived, there was a well developed fire in the conservatory at the back of the home. The fire had almost completely already destroyed the conservatory and had started to corrode into the kitchen and lounge areas which were connected.

"Fire crews entered through the front door of the house via forced entry to search and rescue. The brother in law of Harold who was also a neighbour suggested that he may have been in the property.

"When fire fighters had located his body in the kitchen area to the door to the conservatory, he had clearly already passed away. The neighbours dogs had been barking and said the flames were large and intense and coming up through the roof of the conservatory.

"The whole house was covered in a thick layer of soot.

"We examined all possible ignition sources, including a gas boiler, tumble dryer, TV and lamps in the room but we considered smoking to be the cause.

"We located an area of burnt paper next to his chair which confirmed it was likely there had been a cardboard box there which had burnt away.

"Due to the severity of the damage we cannot be 100 per cent sure of what the exact cause was, but we think it was a cigarette butt that was left smouldering and then turned into a flame.

"Smouldering fires can take hours to develop before it becomes a fire. Harold was likely to have been awoken by an alarm or noise of the fire, by which point damage has already been done because it spread so far.

"The fire would have been well established by the time he discovered it."

The inquest was also told that Harold used to take himself to bed fairly early "usually around 8 pm".

Coroner Mr Richard Taylor ruled that the cause was accidental and that the fire had been ignited by a cigarette butt that had not been completely put out.

Summing up, he said: "It would seem the most likely cause of the fire is discarded cigarette ends. It may have been he was tidying up after himself on the night of May 24 after having a cigarette. He would put the rubbish and contents of his ash tray into the cardboard box beside his chair.

"We were told he was an early to bed man, so it is more likely on balance that he was disturbed in the night somehow, possibly by the sound of the fire, and from evidence that he was trying to get out of the back door before he was overcome by smoke inhalation.

"My conclusion is one of accidental death, simply finding he died on May 25 at his home from the effects of a house fire."