St Helens StarSoldier describes tent fire deaths (From St Helens Star)

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Soldier describes tent fire deaths

St Helens Star: Private Robert Wood, who along with Private Dean Hutchinson, died in a fire that engulfed their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion, an inquest in Salisbury, Wiltshire has heard (Ministry of Defence) Private Robert Wood, who along with Private Dean Hutchinson, died in a fire that engulfed their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion, an inquest in Salisbury, Wiltshire has heard (Ministry of Defence)

A soldier has described how he could hear one of his colleagues who perished in a fire that ripped through their tent as they slept at Camp Bastion calling out his name.

Private Sikeli Ratu told an inquest how he was woken by the smell of smoke and as he fled to raise the alarm the flames took hold of the canvas tent.

Privates Rob Wood, 28, and Dean Hutchinson, 23, were killed when fire swept through the Transport Troop tent in the early hours of February 14 2011.

Pte Ratu told the inquest: "I smelled smoke. I could smell burning and saw flames jumping from the edge of the table and catches the tent.

"I just ran out. The first thing was to get help. I was shouting their names… Once the fire reached the sides of the tent it travelled quickly.

"The flames had got to the point in the tent where they were sleeping. Hutch was calling my name."

He said after running out of the tent he looked back but could not see anything because of the thick smoke.

Asked to describe what was going through his mind at the time, he replied: "I was lost and I couldn't think straight."

The hearing in Salisbury, Wiltshire, has heard how the soldiers, who served with the Royal Logistic Corps, were sleeping in the tent so they could respond more quickly when vital supplies arrived at the military base in Helmand province.

Pte Ratu, who was an acting lance corporal at the time of the incident, said the flames were coming from the area of the tent housing a 32-inch flat screen TV, boiler and fridge.

Fire investigators have concluded that the blaze started in the vicinity of the electrical appliances and quickly spread, igniting combustible materials stored nearby.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroner David Ridley has already heard evidence that soldiers in the Transport Troop unit would sleep during night duties - something their staff sergeant and unit commander were aware off but not their senior officers.

Pte Ratu told the inquest his section commander, a corporal, had told him that they could sleep, providing the duty non-commissioned officer (NCO) remained awake.

He was the duty NCO that night and was working alongside Privates Wood, Hutchinson, Dennis Chhetri and Apenai Bukarau.

In his evidence, Pte Ratu said that Privates Wood and Hutchinson went to bed before midnight, while he and Pte Bukarau stayed up watching a rugby match on the TV.

Pte Chhetri, who had been called out on a job earlier in the evening, went to bed at about 2am.

Pte Ratu said that by the time he went to bed at 3am Pte Bukarau remained awake.

Mr Ridley asked Pte Ratu: "The unwritten rule was that the NCO should stay awake, why were you departing from that?"

Pte Ratu replied: "There was nothing going on at the time."

Mr Ridley asked: "Did you specifically say anything to Pte Bukarau to stay awake?"

Pte Ratu replied: "If I was going to asleep, he should stay awake. If I was going down, he should answer the phone."

The coroner said that Pte Bukarau had since left the Army and had returned to Fiji but in his statement to the Ministry of Defence's service inquiry into the incident he did not recall Pte Ratu saying that.

The telephone in the tent rang at 3.30am and Privates Bukarau and Chhetri left the tent to go and unload an incoming aircraft, leaving Privates Ratu, Hutchinson and Wood asleep in the tent.

The coroner asked: "Did you say anything to Pte Bukarau that if he was to leave he should get somebody else to answer the phone?"

Pte Ratu replied: "No."

Mr Ridley asked: "So when Private Hutchinson got up and answered the phone and went back to bed he had no idea someone should stay awake?"

Pte Ratu replied: "No."

He said he did not hear the sound of the alarm from a smoke detector but added that he could not remember if there was one fitted in the Transport Troop tent or not.

Earlier, the inquest heard evidence that the tent was not on Camp Bastion's "asset register" - a document kept by the Army and facilities contractor KBR listing all buildings and structures the US firm was responsible for.

Major Leigh Jackson, who was the facilities manager at the time of the fire, said when he arrived in Afghanistan in November 2010 it was apparent there were gaps in the register because Camp Bastion was growing - and so a review was taking place.

"I know now that the Transport Troop tent was not on the asset register at the time," he said. "KBR were in the process of producing an asset map at the time (of the fire).

"That was being produced and we were hoping to have all that completed and ready before the tour ended, which would have been April or May 2011.

"Camp Bastion was undergoing huge change at that time and it seemed appropriate that we revisited the asset register."

Major Jackson added: "It would have been almost impossible to have asset register that was 100% complete."

Ian Brown, KBR's contract manager at Camp Bastion, was asked by the coroner why the Transport Troop tent was not on the asset register.

"The reason it wasn't on the register was because it was already there. It was one of those 'legacy issues'," he said.

Pte Wood, known as "Woody", had become a father to a boy, Noah, shortly before he died.

He was a driver port operator, posted to 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, and lived in Marchwood, Hampshire.

Pte Hutchinson, from Spennymoor, County Durham, was a driver and had seven years' service with the Army.

The inquest was adjourned until tomorrow.

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