(The Guardian) A happy half-term holiday in Corfu became “the most appalling tragedy” when two young children died from carbon monoxide poisoning, a coroner has said.
The inquests into the deaths of Christi, seven, and Bobby, six, began in Wakefield on Monday, more than eight years after they died on the Greek island.
Outlining the case to a jury, the coroner, David Hinchliff, said: “What should have been a very happy and relaxed half-term break became the most appalling tragedy.”
Hinchliff described how the children, from Horbury, West Yorkshire, had been feeling unwell in their holiday bungalow the day before they were found dead by a cleaner in October 2006.
The children’s father, Neil Shepherd, and his then-partner, now wife, Ruth, were both found in a coma in the bungalow. The couple were both at Wakefield coroner’s court on Monday to see the jury of seven men and four women sworn in. The children’s mother, Sharon Wood, was also present.
Hinchliff said: “The family of these children have waited a long, long time for this day to come.”
The coroner said the family arrived at the Louis Corcyra Beach hotel on 23 October 2006. There was initially a problem with the accommodation as the family were offered a room in the main hotel block.
But they were eventually allocated a semi-detached two-bedroom bungalow in the grounds, Hinchliff said. The children started to feel unwell on 25 October with Bobby tripping on the floor and appearing to be dizzy.
By bedtime, the boy had recovered a little but his sister was still not feeling well. The coroner said Ruth Shepherd also felt unwell that evening. After she went to bed, Christi started to cry and be sick.
Hinchliff said the adults went into the children’s room but could not remember what happened after that. He said a cleaner let herself in the next day, at about 11am, and found Christi dead on the floor and Bobby dead in the bed. The two adults were close by, both in comatose states.
The first witness in the inquest, which is expected to last at least two weeks, was heating engineering expert Thomas Magner, who explained how carbon monoxide from the boiler that supplied hot water to the bungalow had got into the building.
Magner, who was instructed to examine the scene by tour operator Thomas Cook, said the boiler was housed in an outbuilding and supplied water to two adjoining bungalows. He said it had no flue to connect it to the outside, meaning that fumes from the burners built up inside the outhouse.
The engineer said there were gaps in the walls where air conditioning pipes went into the building and this allowed the lethal carbon monoxide into the ceiling space above the children’s beds.
Magner agreed with the coroner that, by British standards, this work had been “bodged and botched”. He said a third problem was that a water leak meant the boiler was working more than it should have been.
But the engineer said a crucial problem was that a safety cut-off device had been deliberately short-circuited, meaning the boiler would not turn itself off. Magner was asked about this in detail.
The jury had been told that people staying in the adjacent bungalow had complained about not having any hot water the day before the Shepherd family started feeling unwell. As a result of this, hotel staff went to look at the boiler.
Asked by Leslie Thomas QC, for the family, whether this was most likely when the safety device was short-circuited, Magner said: “It’s the only conclusion I came to on the evidence available to me.”
He said the boiler appeared to have been installed in about 1997 or 1998. The jury was also shown extracts from a BBC Panorama documentary which showed pictures of the rusting boiler and the hotel complex. In the programme, the presenter said the family had paid almost £2,000 for the half-term break.
Hinchliff told the jury that a postmortem in Greece concluded that Bobby and Christi died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Another heating engineering expert, Harry Rogers, said he had been told that the previous occupants of the bungalow had also become ill.
Reading from Rogers’ report, the coroner said: “… [bungalow] 112 became available for this family to use because the previous occupants had become unwell and they had been detained in hospital for tests and treatment.”
The engineer, who said he had 55 years’ experience, agreed this was the case. Rogers, who was instructed by the Shepherd family, said that on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 was the worst possible example of installation and maintenance, this boiler was “in the 10 range”.
Rogers said that if the boiler had been inspected in the UK there would have been an order to shut it down immediately. He said that by far the worst aspect of its many failings was the lack of a flue venting to the outside. He told the jury that he had been told this was the case with many of the boilers on the site but was not allowed to inspect them himself.
The engineer said he had been told that Thomas Cook’s position was that the hotel had told the tour company they had no gas appliances for the purposes of heating or water.
At this point Nicholas Purnell QC, for Thomas Cook, made it clear that it was his client’s position that it had been lied to.
Thomas questioned Rogers about whether it was satisfactory that Thomas Cook should have accepted that assurance from the hotel without question.
The engineer said: “They’ve got a duty of care.” He added: “If it’s not gas, how is it being heated?”
The inquest was adjourned until Tuesday at 10am.