Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Pair cleared of killing tot who died in house blaze

A young mother and her former boyfriend burst into tears yesterday as they were cleared of killing her baby daughter in a tragic house fire.

Charmaine Irene Agnew (26) and 25-year-old William McLaughlin were accused of the manslaughter of eight-month-old baby Chelsea Agnew by gross negligence.

Chelsea died in the fire which was started by her two-and-a-half -year-old brother in their Drumbawn home in Enniskillen on August 4 2007.

It took the Dungannon Crown Court jury less than an hour to unanimously acquit the couple, who have since separated. Agnew is from the Drumbawn housing estate and McLaughlin lives in Florence Square in Belfast.

Prosecuting QC Margaret-Anne Dinsmore had claimed that Chelsea's brother had a “fascination with cigarette lighters” and started the fire as his mum and her lover slept in the bedroom they all shared.

It was his frantic screams of “mummy, daddy” which woke the couple who just managed to escape with him, their faces blackened by smoke as they gasped and choked for breath.

Tragically baby Chelsea, asleep in a cot, couldn't be reached and was engulfed in the flames, “too badly burnt” to be saved.

Agnew and McLaughlin later told police of their doomed efforts to save her. Both described how initially all they could see was “smoke and fire around Chelsea's cot”.

However, as they twice reached out for the infant to pluck her to safety they were met by a wall of fire which “just shot up” in front of them, forcing them to retreat.

During the two-week trial, a DVD recorded reconstruction of the blaze carried out in the same first-floor bedroom was shown to the court in the absence of both Agnew and McLaughlin, so harrowing was its vision.

The reconstruction was staged by forensics expert Julian Halligan and showed how, within seconds, the flames licked its way up the side of Chelsea's cot.

Visibility within the room soon dimmed, as black smoke began to rise, the fire itself a blurred pulsating glow in the background.

Within four minutes of the blaze starting, the fabric of the infant's cot had all but disintegrated.

Just over two minutes later the DVD screen in court went blank because the room was by then in total darkness, such was the density of the smoke.

The court had also heard of the frantic efforts by neighbours, police, paramedics and the Fire Service to save baby Chelsea, despite the toxic black smoke.

Neighbours, one of whom had doused a blanket with water to shield himself, told the court how they were driven back by the deadly heat and smoke at the top of the stairs.

One neighbour, Ollie Quinn, who had saved a toddler from a burning car 20 years earlier, said: “I knew myself, I had a feeling, that if there was somebody in that room there was no point, and that if I went into that room I might not get back out again.”

In a witness statement, paramedic Shane Manley, who later followed a fire crew into the bedroom, said he was told “there was nothing could be done for the child as it was too badly burnt”.

He said he looked in and “could just make out a shape on the floor ... but I couldn't distinguish what the shape was and only presumed it to be the remains of the child”.

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