25 Jan 2021
A hotel fire which claimed the lives of two men started after a porter put a bag of ash and embers in a cupboard containing kindling and newspaper.
Simon Midgley and his partner Richard Dyson died in the fire at Cameron House next to Loch Lomond in December 2017.
Cameron House pled guilty to charges under the Fire Scotland Act of failing to take fire safety measures.
Christopher O’Malley, who put the bag in the cupboard, admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.
O’Malley’s lawyer said the night porter – from Renton in West Dunbartonshire – deeply regretted his actions, and did not deliberately start the fire.
Dumbarton Sheriff Court also heard that Cameron House did not have proper procedures in place for the disposal of ash, or for training staff.
The owners also failed to keep cupboards that contained potential ignition sources free of combustibles.
At about 04:00 on 18 December 2017, O’Malley, 35, cleared ash and embers from a fireplace in the Cameron House reception into a metal bucket.
He then emptied the contents of the bucket into a plastic bag, which he put into the concierge cupboard.
The cupboard also contained flammable materials including kindling, newspapers and cardboard.
At about 06:40 an initial fire alarm sounded and staff noticed smoke coming from the concierge cupboard.
O’Malley opened the door and flames took hold, spreading to the hall.
He and two others tried to fight the blaze with fire extinguishers, but were overcome by the flames.
Advocate depute Michael Meehan QC told the court the cupboard was well alight and the “blaze immediately took hold and spread from there”.
He added: “As a result of [Cameron House’s] failure to keep the cupboard free of combustibles, ash and embers ignited and fire spread in the main building.”
The night manager sounded the alarm and called 999. Firefighters arrived within 10 minutes to find a “well developed” fire in the mansion, which is near Balloch in West Dunbartonshire.
More than 200 guests were staying in the hotel.
The court heard one family-of-three on the second floor had to be rescued by firefighters while a couple on the first floor had to crawl to safety because corridors and fire escape pathways were filling with smoke and gases.
It was after 08:00 when it was discovered that Mr Dyson, 38, and Mr Midgley, 32, were missing.
Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus found Mr Dyson on a landing at the top of a staircase.
Mr Midgley was lying in a fire escape passageway. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.
Mr Dyson was taken to hospital, where he was also pronounced dead.
Post-mortem examinations said the men’s causes of death had been inhalation of smoke and fire gases.
The couple had travelled from London, and were staying at the five-star resort as the final stop on their winter break to Scotland.
Sheriff William Gallacher also heard of an incident three nights before the fatal fire, where O’Malley and another night porter were told not to put plastic bags containing ash into the concierge cupboard as it was a fire hazard.
Cameron House QC Peter Gray said it was therefore “extremely difficult to understand” why O’Malley did not follow this guidance on the night of the fire.
The court also heard that Cameron House staff were not properly trained in the safe disposal of ash and that no written procedures were in place.
There was also no procedure in place for emptying the metal ash bins outside the hotel on a regular basis.
That was contrary to recommendations made in two fire risk assessments carried out by an independent company in 2016 and 2017.
After the first report was received by Cameron House management in January 2016, the resort manager agreed there was a lack of a formal procedure for disposing of ash and delegated the responsibility for this to his deputy.
Mr Meehan said this report “should have been a game-changer” for Cameron House.
When the issue was raised again in a follow-up report a year later, managers believed it had already been dealt with.
Mr Gray said: “The resort manager understood incorrectly that all the actions had been completed, including in relation to the written procedure for disposing of ash from open fires.”
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service had also warned Cameron House managers about the risks of storing combustibles in the concierge cupboard in August 2017.
The audit highlighted the potential danger of fire spreading rapidly through the building because of its age and voids.
A follow-up letter was sent to management in November 2017 – one month before the fire – but combustibles continued to be stored in the cupboard.
Cameron House’s lawyer added that the failings were not deliberate breaches but occurred “as a result of genuine errors”.
He also told the court the fire had gone undetected for a long period before being discovered, and that the hotel had a “suite of measures in place” to deal with fire safety.
An absence of formal procedures for dealing with ashes and embers gave staff the opportunity to improvise, he added.
Mr Gray continued: “I am instructed to extend my deepest sympathies from the accused to the families of Mr Midgley and Mr Dyson.
He said the hotel takes its duties to ensure the safety of its guests extremely seriously.
Details of what happened at Cameron House were first revealed in court on 14 December last year, but reporting restrictions meant they could not be published until now.
Sentencing is due to take place on 29 January.