Shropshire Star

House blaze which killed four young children was started by 'un-extinguished' cigarettes, coroner rules

Four young children killed in a blaze at their home died from 'fumes from a fire caused by un-extinguished cigarettes', a coroner has concluded.

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Keegan Unitt, 6, Tilly Unitt, 4, Olly Unitt, 3, and their older brother Riley Holt, 8

South Staffordshire Coroner Andrew Haigh ruled a narrative conclusion into the deaths of Riley John Holt, eight; Keegan Jonathan Unitt, six; four-year-old Tilly Rose Unitt, and Olly Unitt, three, at a hearing this afternoon.

The four children were pronounced dead after their bodies were all found inside a two-storey end terrace house in Sycamore Lane, Stafford, after the fire broke out at around 2.30am on February 5, 2019.

The children’s mother Natalie Unitt and her partner Chris Moulton escaped the fierce blaze alongside their two-year-old son Jack.

A man, aged 30, and woman, 26 – who it has now been confirmed was Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt – were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence at the time.

But it was later confirmed that no further action would be taken against them.

Coroner's officer Heather Bennett told the court the four children's cause of death was given as inhalation of products of combustion.

Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt told the hearing that the fire started on the landing of the property, but this was disputed by the fire investigation officer and senior investigating officer from Staffordshire Police who say it started in the master bedroom.


Mr Moulton, while giving evidence, said he and Ms Unitt had been smoking in bed on the evening of the fire and were later awoken by the blaze – but added that he could not remember how they became aware of the fire.

He said: "I was trying to get to my children. The fire started on the landing. It was not on our bedding in our bed. We got out with Jack through our bedroom window."

Ms Unitt said she became aware of the fire due to a "heaviness of my chest".

She said: "The fire was on the landing – I still have nightmares about it.

"I really can't remember what I tried to do when I became aware of the fire.

"I don't remember managing to get downstairs. I got out the property through the bedroom window by jumping."

Fire investigation officer Lee Richards, from West Midlands Fire Service, told the inquest hearing there was no evidence of electrical faults, naked flames, or that the gas boiler, which was located in a cupboard with the door shut, was responsible for the fire.

He said: "It was quite obvious the adults in the property were smokers – there were a significant number of discarded cigarettes in and around the property.

"Outside the kitchen window there were over 100 cigarette butts, in the garden there was a significant number of butts, below the lounge and master bedroom window and within the overgrowth of the garden.

"Further examination of the ground floor there was evidence of a number of cigarettes that lined the carpet, against the skirting board. Further when examining the first floor landing we found evidence of cigarette butts in the space from where the floor boards had failed.

Ash tray

"Examination of the master bedroom indicated there was a blue ash tray on carpet and within there was a couple of cigarette butts still present. I also found remnants of what I believe is glass which had been smouldered within the springs of the mattress – what I believe constant with a glass ash tray.

"Looking at the origin of the fire – looking how the fire develops, the fire in my opinion developed within the bedroom. As it developed, everything within the room becomes involved – having the window open added ventilation and allowed it to develop and gradually spread outside the compartment.

"In my considered opinion, the fire was caused by the carelessness of cigarettes.

"It's my considered opinion given the evidence we received from both adults, the accounts of them are inconsistent with each other and the evidence at the scene.

"If it started in the boiler as they said, it would have offered them protection due to the door being closed. The evidence supports that Ms Unitt went downstairs while Mr Moulton stayed upstairs."

Detective Inspector Alan Lyford, from Staffordshire Police, who led the investigation, said: "They [Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt] were spoken to individually as witnesses, then they were arrested in connection to offence and spoken to under caution. There were discrepancies in the accounts they provided as witnesses and suspects, and discrepancies with each other.

"We engaged heavily with the Crown Prosecution Service. They determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them on this matter."

In returning a narrative conclusion, Mr Haigh said: "There was a detailed investigation by the fire service and police.

"There have been some differences on recollection by Mr Moulton and Miss Unitt during investigations that have taken place, but with a degree of certainty all four children died in their bedrooms.

"They had been advised not to smoke in the property and there's substantial evidence of them continuing to do so.

"It was suggested the fire may have been caused by the boiler on the landing, I do not accept that – I have heard expert evidence why the boiler was not the cause of the fire.

"For all four deaths I record a narrative conclusion. My formal conclusion will be that they died from the fumes from the fire caused by un-extinguished cigarettes."

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