Father weeps for gas death children
The father of two children who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while on a family holiday in Corfu has broken down in tears while describing his "perfect son" and "sensitive, feisty and loving" daughter.
Neil Shepherd was giving evidence at the inquest into Christi and Bobby Shepherd's deaths in a hotel bungalow on the Greek island in 2006.
Mr Shepherd fought to contain his emotion as Wakefield Coroner David Hinchliff spoke about his children.
Mr Hinchliff told the inquest jury that Christi and Bobby - aged seven and six at the time - went on holiday to the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel with their father and stepmother Ruth in the October half-term holiday.
Mr Shepherd sobbed as the coroner read a statement he had made about his children.
Mr Hinchliff told Mr Shepherd he described Bobby as "your perfect son" and, when asked to describe Christi in three words, he said "sensitive, feisty and loving".
He added that Christi was "bubbly and full of life".
The inquest heard that the family, from Horbury, West Yorkshire, had originally booked a different hotel, using Thomas Cook, after reading good reviews on the internet.
But they were later told the hotel was closing earlier than expected and offered a bungalow at the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel as an alternative.
The family arrived at the hotel on October 23 and were told their bungalow was not ready for them.
Mr Shepherd, 46, said he now knew this was because the previous occupants were in hospital suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
He said: "They were in hospital. All their belongings and things were still in the bungalow."
Mr Shepherd and his wife both told the inquest they had seen a boiler room adjacent to the bungalow, next to the children's bedroom and on their second day there, a neighbour came to tell them there were problems with the hot water supply.
On October 25, both the children began to complain of feeling ill, the inquest heard.
Bobby appeared to trip on his way into the hotel restaurant and a waiter asked the family if they wanted to see a doctor, which they declined.
Christi complained of a headache and a woman running the children's holiday club said she had felt unwell during the morning.
After lunch that day, Christi went to sleep in the bungalow for a couple of hours and woke up feeling better. But after going out for dinner later in the evening, both children said they felt sick and had headaches.
Mrs Shepherd, 35, a teaching assistant, told the inquest that she began to feel dizzy and sick as soon as she got into bed that evening.
About 10 minutes later, the couple heard Christi crying and being sick. Mrs Shepherd said she could hear Bobby whimpering and they both went to comfort the children before losing consciousness themselves.
Mr Hinchliff said to Mr Shepherd: "The last thing you remember was comforting Christi while she was being sick and being sick yourself. You must have lost consciousness because you don't remember anything after that."
The coroner said to Mrs Shepherd as she gave her evidence: "You went to Bobby and lay next to him on the bed. You were stroking his hair to try to comfort him. You think at that stage you lost consciousness."
The couple both woke up in hospital days later.
The inquest heard yesterday that a chambermaid found Christi dead on the floor and Bobby dead in the bed when she let herself in the next morning. The two adults were close by, both in comatose states.
Mr Hinchliff told the inquest that Mr Shepherd suffered from memory problems and post-traumatic stress disorder since his children's deaths.
He said: "You're still paralysed with guilt about what happened on what you describe as your watch."
The inquest, at Wakefield Coroner's Court, heard yesterday that fumes from the boiler built up inside the outhouse adjoining the Shepherds' bungalow because there was no flue to the outside.
A heating engineering expert said he was told that Thomas Cook's position was that the hotel told the tour company they had no gas appliances for the purposes of heating or water.
Today, when asked by Leslie Thomas QC, for the family, if he had anything to say, Mr Shepherd said: "When Mr Richard Carson, the health and safety executive of Thomas Cook, gave his evidence in the criminal trial in Corfu, his defence was that he had no health and safety qualifications so could not possibly have known anything was wrong. That shocked me.
"I would like you, sir, to ask the past and present CEO of Thomas Cook why they carry out health and safety audits on hotels they send their customers to using unqualified health and safety auditors, and do they not think it would be appropriate when putting their clients in accommodation to get them inspected using fully-qualified auditors who know what dangers to look for?
"There were massive gas tanks at the hotel, there was a gas warning light on the side of the boiler house. It is inexcusable for these to be missed and Thomas Cook should not be putting their guests' lives at risk by using unqualified staff to carry out health and safety audits.
"I firmly believe my children would be here today if Thomas Cook had carried out an inspection of the boilers."
Mrs Shepherd added that she wanted to ask Thomas Cook if it felt it was right to put the liability and responsibility for checking such appliances on "untrained, unqualified travel reps who know nothing more than we do".
She said: "We want to know why they feel they should put their profits over the lives of holidaymakers."
Later, Bobby and Christi's mother Sharon Wood told the inquest that she heard a news report on the radio saying two children from Wakefield had died in Greece.
Ten minutes later, the police arrived at her home and confirmed that her children had died and Mr Shepherd and his partner were not expected to survive.
Mrs Wood said she flew to Corfu with her husband Paul.
She said she was originally told she could not see her children for two days because it was a bank holiday but the priest at the church where their bodies were being kept allowed her to visit.
Her voice broke with emotion as she told the inquest: "Christi and Bobby were both dressed in someone else's clothes and they had their shoes on the wrong feet. I wanted my children to be dressed in their own clothes."
Mrs Wood said she visited the bungalow and saw that an air conditioning unit had been ripped off the wall and the boiler house was sealed up with police tape. Mr Wood returned to the hotel at a later date and took photographs.
She said there was blood and vomit on the floor of the bedroom where the children died.
Mrs Wood also criticised Thomas Cook.
"I want to look further up the chain of command in Thomas Cook. I want to know why those gas boilers were not identified, why they were not serviced regularly," she said.
"This is not just a difference of local standards abroad. This is gross negligence."
She added: "Ultimately, my children paid the price with their lives."