Four children died in house fire after their parents fell asleep while smoking in bed, inquest hears

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Four children aged three, four, six and eight, died in a horror house fire after their parents fell asleep while smoking in bed, an inquest has heard.  

Riley John Holt, eight, Keegan Jonathan Unitt, six, Tilly Rose Unitt, four, and Olly Unitt, three, died when a blaze broke out at their family home in Stafford, Staffordshire, in February last year.

Natalie Unitt, 26, and her partner Chris Moulton, 30, were held by police on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence.

But in August the Crown Prosecution Service announced it was to take no further action.

An inquest today found the children died from ‘fumes from fire caused by [an] unextinguished cigarette’ on bedding in the parents bedroom.

Keegan, Tilly, Olly and Riley, died in the devastating blaze in February last year

The hearing in Stafford was told that the parents had previously been warned about smoking indoors by social workers.

Both parents denied the blaze started in the bedroom at the house.

Fire investigator Lee Richards concluded that the blaze ‘was caused by carelessness with cigarettes’ in the bedroom.

Coroner Andrew Haigh said: ‘Ms Unitt had been advised not to smoke in the property but there is substantial evidence of them continuing to do so.

‘It’s understandable they tried to play down the significance of this bearing in mind what has happened.

‘Mr Moulton suggested that the fire may have been caused where the boiler is on the landing on the property. I do not accept that. I have heard the expert evidence and Mr Richards has clearly indicated why the boiler is not the cause of this fire.

Parents Natalie Unitt, 26, and her partner Chris Moulton, 30, managed to escape the fire

Parents Natalie Unitt, 26, and her partner Chris Moulton, 30, managed to escape the fire

Parents Natalie Unitt, 26, and her partner Chris Moulton, 30, managed to escape the fire

‘He has properly explained his reasons for his decision as to the cause of the fire. That was that the fire started as a result of a cigarette on the bedding in the main bedroom.’

The fire ripped through the family’s terraced property just after 2.40am on February 2 last year.

Mr Moulton leapt from the first-floor window with their youngest child, then two. Ms Unitt escaped via the front door, the coroner said.

Both parents, who are still together, said they could not remember the aftermath of the blaze. But Mr Moulton, who suffered substantial burns and needed a skin graft, believed the fire started on the landing near a boiler.

The tragic deaths of the children prompted an outpouring of grief in the Stafford community

The tragic deaths of the children prompted an outpouring of grief in the Stafford community

The tragic deaths of the children prompted an outpouring of grief in the Stafford community

Lee Richards, a fire officer with West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service, said there was no evidence that an electrical fault or gas supply fault triggered the blaze.

Mr Richards said the accounts of the parents ‘was inconsistent with each others’ and that on his ‘interpretation of the scene the fire started in their bedroom’.

He said: ‘The fire in my opinion developed within the bedroom. As the fire developed, the room went into full flashover, where everything within the room becomes involved in fire.

‘Having the windows open aided ventilation to the fire and allowed the fire to grow greatly and spread outside the compartment.’

Mr Richards said his investigations found a ‘significant number of carelessly discarded cigarettes’ inside and outside the house.

Fire crews at the scene of the fatal house fire dealing with the smouldering house

Fire crews at the scene of the fatal house fire dealing with the smouldering house

Fire crews at the scene of the fatal house fire dealing with the smouldering house

He said there was ‘in excess of 100 cigarettes’ found outside a door to the garden and ‘discarded butts below the lounge window, bedroom window and within the undergrowth of the garden.’

Mr Richards added: ‘The actions of Chris and Natalie remain a subject of conjecture.’

All four children died from smoke and fume inhalation in the fire.

Detective Inspector Alan Lyford, of Staffordshire Police, who led the investigation, told the inquest the parents had previously been given advice ‘about not smoking within the home address by social workers’.

He said he believed Mr Moulton, who was father of three of the children, moved a burning duvet from the bedroom to the landing in a bid to extinguish it.

He said: ‘Having worked with Mr Richards, I concur with him in that we believe the fire started within the bedroom. The hypothesis is that a duvet was moved outside the room which then further set alight, causing Christopher not to be able to leave by the stairs and get access to his children.

‘It stopped Natalie getting back upstairs and that’s why she had to leave via downstairs.’

Ms Unitt said she recalled smoking in bed and had fallen asleep before becoming aware of the fire.

Asked how she became aware of the blaze, she said: ‘I had heaviness on my chest.

‘It was on the landing. I still have nightmares about it now.’

She denied her bedding had been set alight or moving the couple’s duvet into the landing

She said she couldn’t remember the aftermath of the blaze because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr Moulton said he had gone to sleep after smoking in bed but was woken by the blaze.

Asked by the coroner where the fire was, he said: ‘It was on the landing.’

He said he could not rescue his children because the ‘fire was too intense’.

The Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against the couple, the inquest heard.

Det Insp Lyford told the court: ‘In December of last year, we submitted an advice file to them.

‘This was considered by CPS and they considered several offences and ultimately deemed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Natalie or Christopher in relation to this matter.’ 

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