The families of three firemen killed in a warehouse blaze have called a chief fire officer "hypocritical", "arrogant" and "small minded" after he welcomed the acquittal of three long-serving firefighters who had been charged with manslaughter over the tragedy.
Graeme Smith, the head of Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, claimed Adrian Ashley, Paul Simmons and Timothy Woodward had been "treated like common criminals" in the wake of the fatal fire at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007.
Jurors at Stafford Crown Court cleared watch manager Ashley, 45, and 51-year-old station manager Woodward of gross negligence manslaughter after hearing six weeks of evidence about the deaths of Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, John Averis and Ian Reid. Watch manager Simmons, 50, was acquitted of the same charge on the directions of the judge part-way through the trial.
Speaking after the verdicts, Mr Smith said it was "crystal clear" that the case should not have been brought to court and called for an investigation into why the three men were prosecuted.
But at a press conference in Warwickshire, relatives of Mr Stephens, Mr Reid and Mr Yates-Badley said they had been let down by Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service following the fire at a vegetable packing plant on November 2. The family of Mr Averis were present but decided not to speak.
Ian Reid's widow Julie said she had been devastated by the not guilty verdicts, adding: "Why does Warwickshire chief fire officer Smith think this case should not have gone to court? Does he not think that where the evidence is there, action should be taken?
"Is he really that arrogant and small minded to think that firefighters are above the law? We are all accountable for our actions, even the police. No one is above the law. We have a legal process in this country and if the police suspect a crime has been committed they are duty bound to investigate and pass their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service.
"The legal process will determine whether charges should be brought, not the profession of an individual. The jury could not find guilt in this case. But if this case makes incident commanders take one extra minute to assess the situation presented on arriving at an incident then that can only be for the good. A firefighter's life is not worth less than that of a member of the public and it most certainly is not worth a pallet of packing material."
Mrs Reid, who described the fire service as a "sleepy hollow", added: "I do acknowledge that the defendants and their families have had a difficult year with this hanging over their heads but it is nothing compared to the heartache that Sophie (the couple's daughter) and I have suffered for four and a half years. I lost my husband, who I loved very much, and Sophie lost the dad she adored. Our heartache and loss is permanent."
Paul Stephens, the firefighter father of Ashley Stephens, was present at the blaze that killed his son. In a statement read on his behalf by a police liaison officer, he said: "As his father, and at the time a serving firefighter being present at the incident, having witnessed the horrendous scene on that night has left me with images that will stay with me forever - images so strong I have not been able to attend the court hearing."