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'No need for fumes deaths apology'

Published 07/05/2015

Christianne Shepherd, seven, and her brother, Robert, six, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Corfu in 2006
Christianne Shepherd, seven, and her brother, Robert, six, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Corfu in 2006

Thomas Cook has nothing to apologise for over the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Greece, the travel firm's current boss has told an inquest.

Group chief executive officer Peter Fankhauser was giving evidence at the hearing in Wakefield into the deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, aged seven and six, who died at a hotel complex in Corfu in October 2006.

Mr Fankhauser took to the witness box after one of his predecessors, Manny Fontenla-Novoa, refused to answer a series of questions put to him about the tragedy.

The current chief executive, who took over at the head of Thomas Cook Group in November last year, was a sked to apologise to the family on behalf of the firm.

He said: "I feel incredibly sorry for the family - incredibly sorry. But I don't have to apologise."

Leslie Thomas QC, representing Bobby and Christi's family, asked Mr Fankhauser to explain why he did not feel Thomas Cook should apologise.

The chief executive said: "I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry but there's no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook."

The jury at the inquests, which started last week, has heard that the children, from Horbury, near Wakefield, were on a half-term break with their father, Neil, and his partner, now wife, Ruth, when the tragedy happened.

They were found dead in a bungalow in the grounds of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel by a chambermaid. Mr and Mrs Shepherd were found in comas but later recovered.

The jury has heard that Bobby and Christi were poisoned by carbon monoxide from a faulty hot water boiler housed in an outbuilding.

Mr Fankhauser said Thomas Cook, which had a policy of avoiding hotels where rooms had gas hot water appliances, was lied to by people at the hotel who said there was no gas supply at the complex.

And he said the immediate cause of the problem was that a vital safety device had been disconnected on the boiler.

Mr Fankhauser gave evidence immediately after Mr Fontenla-Novoa, who was chief executive of Thomas Cook's UK and Ireland operation in 2006 and went on to become group chief executive - the post he held when he gave evidence to West Yorkshire Police in 2009.

Coroner David Hinchliff warned Mr Fontenla-Novoa that he did not have to answer any questions which might incriminate him and the witness then responded to virtually every question put to him by saying: "I decline to answer."

But when he was invited by Mr Thomas to "look my clients in the eyes" and express his sympathy, Mr Fontenla-Novoa said: "I deeply regret the incident that occurred."

He turned to look at Christi and Bobby's parents as he said the words and repeated them when he was asked by the barrister to speak louder.

The children's mother, Sharon Wood, said from the public gallery: "Speak up for yourself, then."

The family was sitting about five metres away, just behind their legal representatives.

Mr Thomas began his questioning by asking the former chief executive: "I'm going to suggest to you that what was more important to Thomas Cook was profit so Thomas Cook put profit before safety."

Mr Fontenla-Novoa said: "I decline to answer."

Mr Thomas then asked Mr Fontenla-Novoa: "How does it make you feel that your customers, who paid good money for your services, have had to wait eight and a half years to get answers as to how their children were lost, and you are saying 'I decline to answer'?

"Does it make you feel good?"

The witness said: "I decline to answer."

Mr Thomas asked about Thomas Cook's health and safety systems and Mr Fontenla-Novoa declined to answer all his questions.

The barrister said: "If these systems worked, these kids would be alive. So what happened?"

Mr Fontenla-Novoa refused to answer.

Mr Thomas said : "Your staff have all sat there and declined to answer. Are you going to lead by example and co-operate?"

The witness again refused to answer.

Mr Thomas then read Mr Fontenla-Novoa a series of specific questions he said the family had asked him to put directly.

The ex-chief executive refused to answer them.

Earlier, Mr Hinchliff took the witness through a statement he made to police in 2009.

After confirming his name and that he is no longer chief executive, Mr Fontenla-Novoa was asked to confirm that he said in his statement: "The deaths of Robert and Christianne Shepherd are very significant events in the company's history as they are the only customers of Thomas Cook to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

"Since their deaths in October 2006, this awful tragedy has been a major priority occupying my attention and also the attention of all my senior management and the board."

He replied: "I decline to answer that."

The coroner asked Mr Fontenla-Novoa to confirm that his statement said: "I believe every employee employed by Thomas Cook has been impacted by this tragedy and we have made every effort to consider the best interests of the family."

He replied: "I decline to answer that."

Continuing with the statement, the coroner read: "As a father myself, I have the utmost sympathy for the family."

Mr Hinchliff asked: "That is still the case?"

Mr Fontenla-Novoa replied: "It is."

According to the statement read by the coroner, Thomas Cook Group in 2009 was a FTSE 100 company with worldwide sales of £8.5 billion and 22.3 million customers.

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