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Exclusive: Smoke alarms at fire which killed young woman ‘were not working’

Cause of blaze remains unknown but coroner takes council to task over safety responsibility

19 April, 2018 — By William McLennan

The fatal fire in Daleham Gardens

A CORONER has criticised Camden Council’s approach to fire safety after an inquiry into the death of a young woman discovered that nobody is responsible for regularly testing smoke alarms.

Magdalena Fink was trapped in her room, making a panicked phone call to a friend, when she was overcome by smoke as a fire ripped through the council-owned block of flats in Hampstead, St Pancras Coroner’s Court heard.

The 35-year-old was found dead by firefighters in her first-floor flat in Daleham Gardens at around 3am on November 21 last year.

Her neighbours believe the fire alarm outside her home was faulty and failed to alert her in time to escape.

Council employees told an inquest on Wednesday that nobody was tasked with regularly checking fire alarms, admitting that the problem extended to similar properties across the borough.

Senior coroner Mary Hassell said that estate caretakers should have been given the task, pointing out that the failing was not caused by a lack of resources.

Referring to the Grenfell Tower fire in June, which claimed 71 lives, she said: “It seems to me there was a gap there. Given the events of last year, elsewhere, it is disappointing this was not identified.”

The coroner is to send a legal warning to Camden Council, known as a prevention of future deaths notice, outlining changes that need to be made.

Megan Rousseau’s video was key to the investigation  

Fire investigators have established that the blaze was started by a “human act”, but have been unable to determine exactly how it was lit and who is responsible, due to the extent of the damage, the court heard.

They said the flame damage was so severe that, were it not for a mobile phone footage (above), shot by one resident as they fled their home in the middle of the night, they would not have been able to determine the “seat of the fire”.

An extensive police investigation has so far failed to identify a single suspect. Ms Fink, a paralegal, who was born in Munster, Germany, had been living in London since 2006.

She was a devout Christian who regularly carried out missionary work in Africa and South America, the court heard.

As flames spread through the block, she phoned her friend Gerald Fischer-Reinhardt, a Christian minister in Germany, in a state of terror.

“I could hear the fear and confusion in her voice,” Dr Fischer-Reinhardt said in a statement read to the court.

“I could tell that she couldn’t breathe, so I told her to smash a window with a heavy object. She said: ‘I can’t. I can’t’.

“Suddenly Magdalena stopped repeating herself and said I cannot pull through and I could no longer hear her breathing. “I was screaming at her to get out, but she couldn’t. It was like something out of a horror movie.”

Around 20 others were able to escape the building unharmed, thanks to the screams of their neighbour Tanya Ley, who was first to spot the fire.

Megan Rousseau, who lived opposite Ms Fink, told the court that she believes the sensors outside her flat were not triggered.

She said: “I don’t think we would have woken up if we hadn’t been woken up by the shouting from the street.” Ms Fink, however, “did not have windows onto the street,” she said.

Ms Hassell said: “Every resident described a smoke alarm that was not loud. It was either muffled or distant. I do not know whether all of the smoke alarms were working.”

A post-mortem investigation discovered that Ms Fink died as the result of the “inhalation of fire fumes,” including poisonous carbon monoxide.

Ms Hassell said that while she was confident that the fire was the “consequence of a human act introducing a naked flame” there was a lack of evidence to rule that Ms Fink’s death was either accidental or unlawful.

Ms Fink had been “overcome by the situation and then became overcome by the fumes,” she said. “By the time she realised the gravity of the situation, the black, billowing smoke was already in the hallway.”

The Town Hall said in a statement: “We have listened to the coroner’s conclusion and will give serious consideration to her report once we receive it.

“We continue to review our fire safety arrangements across Camden’s homes as part of our new standard of resident safety…This includes carrying out enhanced fire risk assessments in council homes, installing new smoke and fire alarms, upgrading fire doors, installing door closers and ensuring fire stopping is in place to prevent the spread of smoke and fire.”

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