Thief ‘may have caused sister’s smoke death’

Tragic end: Diane Peace died from the effects of smoke inhalation

Tragic end: Diane Peace died from the effects of smoke inhalation

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The grieving sister of a woman who died after an horrific fire has told how she believes an electricity thief may have caused her death.

Diane Peace, 53, died from the effects of smoke inhalation more than two weeks after a fire at her three-storey block of flats on Eastbank Road, St Annes.

A Blackpool Coroners Court inquest heard the blaze was caused by an electrical fault, but had spread more quickly because two missing floorboards exposed a gas pipe – part of which was melted by the heat.

Miss Peace’s sister, Jennifer Meara, told the court she believed there could be a link between the missing boards and the theft of electricity from the flat.

The power theft was only discovered after the thefts stopped when she contacted supplier EON due to the sudden rise in her sister’s bills.

After the hearing, Ms Meara, a headteacher from Bedfordshire, said: “It’s possible that whoever was stealing electricity removed the floorboards.

“And I think if the boards had been there that might have slowed the fire, and my sister would have stood a better chance of surviving.

“But it’s all impossible to prove.”

Ms Meara added that, although her sister had been reclusive in the months before her death, she had been a “feisty, independent character” who loved going out to local pubs and restaurants.

The former factory packer was visited by carers because she suffered from Turner Syndrome, which is associated with brain and heart problems, and leads to symptoms including poor sight and hearing, and being smaller than normal.

The inquest heard that Miss Peace had been woken by either the fire alarm or smoke at 11.40pm on March 26, and there was evidence she had left her flat before going back inside because of the hot smoke. When firefighters arrived, part of the staircase had been burnt away and they had to use a ladder to rescue Miss Peace from her first floor and two neighbours from the floor above.

Blackpool Victoria Hospital pathologist, Mark Sissons, said Miss Peace’s level of carboxyhemoglobin – a hemoglobin combined with carbon monoxide – was 22 per cent, below the usual fatal range of 45-50 per cent, and it had been hoped that she could be saved. But she died in hospital at 9am on April 7.

Fire investigation officer Richard Percival, from Lancashire Fire Service, said the fire had started in an electrical storage cupboard under the communal stairs.

Forensic tests showed a loose strand in an electrical cable, which would have been cut off before its installation, possibly 70 years ago, had developed a heating fault, a theory supported by Det Insp Gary Willis of Blackpool Police.

Mr Percival said investigations suggested the floorboards had been missing for at least nine months, but that no record of work to explain their removal had been found.

He said there had been some suggestion that unofficial electrical work may have been done there.

“Directly below where the fire started these boards were missing, and hot burning bitumen has fallen through the hole and melted soldering on a copper pipe, releasing gas,” said Mr Percival.

“That meant the fire would have developed significantly more quickly, and would have been more considerable.”

Ms Meara raised the possibility of a link between the tampering with the electricity meters and the removal of the floorboards.

But Coroner for Blackpool and Fylde, Alan Wilson, said it was possible the two things were completely separate, and it was likely the boards had been removed by a tenant who had previously done electrical work.

He concluded that while the missing floorboards were a “failure on someone’s part”, they did not amount to a “gross failure” which had caused the fire.

Mr Wilson concluded Miss Peace’s had died as a result of bronchial pneumonia caused by smoke inhalation, and that her death was accidental.