Police failed to locate the body of a drunk man who died in a fire which swept through a disused school in north Belfast, an inquest has heard.
It was not until 12 hours later that a couple accidentally stumbled on Stephen Gallagher (39) lying on the ground amid the remains of the blackened building.
Officers had been told about a man the previous day by children but called off their search because of darkness and dangers accessing the property, Belfast Coroner's Court was told.
Coroner John Leckey told the Belfast inquest: “It is quite dreadful to think that the person may have been alive and left to lie where he was overnight.”
Eight-year-old children found the unemployed butcher on September 1 last year at the derelict Deaf and Blind School in Jordanstown and parents reported it to police. A helicopter was used as part of the search, but officers failed to locate the body.
Mr Gallagher, from Greymount Parade, Belfast, had called the emergency services a few days earlier on his mobile phone but was unable to tell them where he was.
Mr Leckey added: “I think this is so serious that the Chief Constable (Matt Baggott) should be aware of it and it is certainly a matter I intend to refer to the Police Ombudsman (Al Hutchinson).
“It beggars belief that the police officers concerned did not have the wit to speak to the children concerned.”
Constable Jonathon Mallon, who eventually found the body, said the property was derelict and that there had been a lot of debris when they first investigated. The search was called off due to the fact that it was getting a bit dangerous at night to go through the property because of all the waste and dereliction in place,” he said.
Mr Leckey said: “If children found the body surely police would want to speak to the children,” the coroner added.
Constable Mallon said they were upset by what they had seen and their parents did not want them to talk to police. Mr Leckey said: “It is important if there is a report of a dead body that it is thoroughly investigated.
“I find it very concerning because the person concerned may have been conscious rather than dead and injured in derelict premises overnight.”
The coroner ruled that Mr Gallagher had died of smoke inhalation while severely intoxicated by alcohol.