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Monday, 22 December 2014

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Man and woman found dead after blaze near Cumbrian mansion

Investigations are continuing today after a man and a woman were found dead following a fire that tore through two large sheds in the grounds of a Cumbrian mansion.

The tragedy happened yesterday (Saturday) afternoon in the sprawling grounds of Larch Cottage in the hamlet of Ecclerigg, 150 metres from the shores of Windermere.

It is thought those killed were firework technicians booked to stage an evening display. It may be several days before they are formally identified.

They had joined around 70 guests who had gathered to mark the wedding of local insurance boss John Simpson and Nicole Rothwell, who were said to have married earlier in the week.

Eyewitnesses who were at the nearby Brockhole Visitor Centre reported hearing loud explosions coming from within the fire, which destroyed the two adjacent sheds, each measuring nearly 40ft long by 12ft wide. Thick smoke billowing from the blaze could be seen from miles around.

The Tree Top Trek adventure centre at Brockhole was evacuated as a precaution with many families present, while staff ensured the site did not pose a fire hazard.

A man who attended the celebration, who did not wish to be named, said: "It was a beautiful sunny day and then there was this almighty bang and then the fireworks started going off.

"I thought this was the wrong time for it, we were wondering why it was being held in the bright daylight.

"The shed was somewhere behind the marquee so I couldn't see the flames but there was debris all around and I could see a large plume of smoke.

"All the guests were running away. It was terrible. Obviously a lot of people were very upset, everyone was in shock. Nicole was obviously extremely upset."

Neighbours John and Enid Battersby, who live opposite, both compared the noise to the Manchester Blitz of 1940 when the German air force bombed the city centre.

Mrs Battersby said: "It was very frightening. It was an enormous explosion which I had not heard anything like since the blitz in Manchester.

"There was this one big sound followed by further smaller bangs and pops and a cloud of smoke then drifted over as all the police cars and fire engines arrived."

Forensic experts are now combing over the wreckage in a search for clues.

Steve Healey, Head of Service Delivery with Cumbria Fire & Rescue Service, who was at the scene, told how fire crews from Windermere and Ambleside were at the scene just eight minutes after getting the 999 call at 3.32pm.

The blaze was so intense that the firefighters nearest the sheds had to wear breathing apparatus.

He said: “The fire was in two wooden structures which were well away from the main building Larch Cottage.

“So there was no risk to the main building but the sheds were completely ablaze – so much so that it would have been impossible to go in. There was also a vehicle parked adjacent to the sheds which was well alight as well.

“The conditions were quite ferocious.”

At its height, the blaze was being tackled by around 20 firefighters, the additional crews coming from Staveley and Coniston.

Mr Healey added: “When we arrived, witnesses said there was potentially two people missing at that moment. Unfortunately, we did discover two people who tragically died at the scene.”

He confirmed that there was a wedding party underway in the grounds of the house at the time of the tragedy.

On Sunday, one fire crew remained on standby as the hunt for forensic clues to how the fire started got underway, led for the Fire Service by fire investigation expert Alan Sowerby, a group manager, while the police side of the investigation was being headed by Detective Chief Inspector Mike Brown.

He said: “We are still at a really early stage.

“It’s a joint investigation with Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service. We are still trying to establish the circumstances and the cause of the fire."

The Health and Safety Executive and Trading Standards department are also involved in the probe.

Some tourists who were in the area at the time have given dramatic accounts of hearing loud explosions.

One who posted his account online was Neil Harrison, who wrote: “We were at Brockhole when the incident happened.

“I can definitely say that they were fireworks with several loud explosions and then followed by a lot of smoke, that was when we knew there was something wrong.”

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