Justice may have been won but the truth is missing

Scene of fire on Lytham Road, Freckleton
Scene of fire on Lytham Road, Freckleton
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‘Why?’ still rings loud in Freckleton but, history shows this is a community that is strong, it pulls together.

We wanted answers. We wanted justice.”

There’s a wealth of passion in the simple statement.

It comes from an elderly woman who has spent most of her married life in a village bypassed by most of us – Freckleton.

Like many of the locals I speak to, she does not wish to be identified.

She wanted justice for the three children - four-year-old twins Holly and Ella and two-year-old Jordan - who died in a house fire on Lytham Road which broke out at just before 11.30pm on January 7, 2012 - and for the older brother Reece, 19, who tried in vain to save them at the cost of his own life.

Today there’s a palpable sense of relief within the village that the court case has ended with the conviction of 19-year-old Dyson Allen on four counts of manslaughter.

But the questions remain.

“We may know who - but we still don’t know why,” says a BAE Systems worker who lives on the fringe of Freckleton.

It’s most haunting question of all - and the killer described as a “liar” many times over by police has yet to come clean.

There was a sense, within the village, of having won justice - but been cheated of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Not from the liar, liar who left his candle-wax smeared pants in the conservatory of the building in a bid to evade justice.

The tragedy unites the village of Freckleton and neighbouring town Lytham, from which the family moved shortly before the fire.

Both communities are deeply touched by the tragedy. What started as a 36th birthday party for Michelle Smith ended in the deaths of four of her children.

Allen will be sentenced next month. He faces a significant prison sentence for what police chiefs describe as a “senseless act.”

“It’s very difficult to know precisely what happened here,” admits councillor Louis Rigby, who represents Freckleton on Fylde Council and is one of the borough’s longest serving councillors.

“I don’t think we held out much hope of real answers from the start. It was a tragedy. We’ve had enough tragedy. Most hoped it was a tragic accident, they didn’t want to apportion blame.

“It won’t break us. History shows this community is strong, it pulls together. You come to the village and soon find that out. On Club Day we walked past where it happened and it was very sad. I remember being in bed when I heard the fire engine pass and never gave it a second thought. And then I woke to the news. Dreadful. We’ll never forget it.”

Michelle Smith’s former home is boarded up within, gardens and pathways overgrown, bins outside mocking the old household routine.

It’s a constant reminder to locals of the scale of the loss.

“I’d love to see the place razed to the ground,” says one elderly passerby. He doesn’t want to be named either.

It was on the route, as Coun Rigby points out, of the processionals for the recent Freckleton Club Day.

The annual event celebrates the enduring sense of community which binds residents young and old together.

The house stood like a rift in time.

Time was when Freckleton, village of “music and flowers”, wasn’t off the beaten track.

Traffic passing through was so heavy locals wanted no truck with it. They campaigned for a bypass to make Freckleton safer for their children.

They got it. Outsiders must make a conscious decision to drive through to shops, pubs, restaurants.

The bypass has effectively created a cul-de-sac out of Freckleton.

And it IS a safe place to raise a family. By and large. However, when tragedy strikes the shock waves span decades. A catastrophic air crash on August 23, 1944 cost 61 lives, 38 of them children, at Holy Trinity Church of England School.

A US Army Air Forces Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber crashed into the school, demolished several houses and a snack bar.

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary - but many village elders can still barely bring themselves to talk of what happened.

Much the same, it seems, is likely to apply to the four young lives lost here.

Reece, the eldest, an engineering student at Lytham St Annes High Technology and Performing Arts College, died trying to save the younger children. Twins Holly and Ella, born 10 minutes apart, best friends as well as sisters, were in their very first year at St John’s Primary School, Lytham. A special assembly was held there in tribute to the high spirited and loving little girls.

Jordan was - according to his mum - as “cheeky” as they come. A typical toddler.

The tragedy profoundly affected firefighters involved. Lancashire’s former chief fire officer Peter Holland, a fourth generation firefighter who retired last year, says: “No matter how many fires you have seen, how many fatalities, it always leaves its mark on you, especially where children are involved.

“You detach yourself emotionally while there just to deal with it, and focus, and be as professional as possible. But afterwards it crashes in.”

Most incidents of this type are resolved quickly. Precipitating factors - an electrical fault, faulty sleeping blanket, unguarded flame or more sinister cause - cut and dried and identified and legally wrapped up.

This case took 17 months to reach the crown court. The delay was telling. But Allen never ceased to be a suspect.

Friends said he flirted with fire, lit bonfires, did “tricks” with aerosol sprays, threw cans on fires to hear them bang and see “them fly.”

When Allen was pressed for an explanation by the children’s 17 year old brother Andrew Smith he responded: “it was the candle, Andy. It was the candle.”

Mourners at the memorial service told of a man who looked haunted by a deadly secret.

Circumstantial evidence stacked up.

Chief fire investigator Rick Percival maintained: “The most likely source of ignition is a naked flame deliberately held against the clothing hanging in the wardrobe for at least three seconds.”

Statistics showed boys were more likely to start fires. Commonsense dictated two year old Jordan was neither tall enough or able to use a cigarette lighter, match, or lift a candle high enough to ignite clothes in the wardrobe which was the seat of the fire.

The court heard it was unlikely the children would have set the fire, discarded the ignition source, then climbed back into bed.

The devil was in the detail. The fire consumed all synthetics in its path and cracked windows. Smoke and gases swirled in the ceiling, plaster melted, formed hot pools in the carpet. Investigators revealed the heartbreaking fact that one twin suffered severe burns to her feet.

The jury, eight men, four women, took a virtual tour of the house, by crime scene montage, some fighting back tears. The family kept its counsel. Stepfather Paul Dosset, of Lytham, later raised money for firefighters. “I wanted to do anything I could to help them.”

Michelle broke her silence after the trial to declare their ordeal “hell”. Earlier she told TV’s Crimewatch: “Every time I look at their pictures and see their smiling faces, it’s devastating. It’s killing me inside.”

In Freckleton there’s a sense of relief the trial, bar the sentencing, is over.

But this isn’t life 999 TV series style, neighbours clamouring to comment from the sidelines. Freckleton closes ranks when tragedy strikes.

It copes with death by getting on with life. It is, to use an old fashioned term, stoic.

But compassion runs deep. The village “of music and flowers” says it with flowers - and small acts of kindness.

Residents gave me a wide berth as I stood in the rain near the boarded-up house. But when I finally returned to my car a young woman emerged - and handed me a hot cup of coffee.

“People won’t forget but they do want to put this behind us. Nothing can bring those kids back.

“The twins were just a little younger than my own children. We didn’t know the family but let on.

“And children remember children.

“When I picked mine up from their gran’s she was telling them not about the air disaster here or the fire but the Aberfan disaster she remembered from her childhood. She said terrible things can happen and sometimes we don’t always know why.”

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