Cigarette caused double fatal house fire, coroner rules

AN ELDERLY couple from Saffron Walden died from smoke inhalation after a discarded cigarette set fire to a sofa, a coroner has ruled.

Reclusive 80-year-old Phoebe Holding and her husband Reginald, 76, died in a blaze at 15 Mill Lane on December 11, 2009.

Smoker Mrs Holding, who lived at 10 Mill Lane, was separated from her husband but they were still married, a Chelmsford inquest heard on Tuesday.

She had been living with Mr Holding temporarily – and possibly sleeping on the downstairs sofa – while work was completed on her own house. Firefighters discovered the body of Mrs Holding at the foot of the stairs, while her husband was in the study upstairs.

Investigating officer Ritchie Farrant, from the Essex Fire and Rescue Service, said the blaze had almost certainly started in the lounge and that all of the fire damage was at the front of the house. Firefighters had to enter the property through the back door.

“The area most affected was where the sofa had been located but had burnt away,” he said. “Remains of a duvet were also found which suggests the sofa had been used for sleeping purposes or at least for keeping warm.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the sofa was the start of the fire and that smoking was the most likely cause. Any evidence of smoking would have burnt away in the fire.”

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Mr Farrant added that it would take at least an hour for a smouldering cigarette to start a fire and its growth would be slow until it found oxygen or another source of fuel, such as the floorboards. He suggested that the even smoke deposits across the walls and three stopped timepieces supported this theory, as opposed to an electrical fire which would have spread more quickly.

Although Mr Farrant could not rule out that the fire was started deliberately, he said: “One of the first things that we did was to look at the front door and the letter box and we took a sample of the carpet and there was no evidence of anything being put through the door or any damage to the letter box that way.”

Assistant deputy coroner for Essex and Thurrock, Tina Harrington, said: “Mr and Mrs Holding died of smoke inhalation caused by an accidental, non-deliberate fire. On the balance of probability, it was caused by Phoebe Holding who was smoking and who accidentally discarded a cigarette that caused the sofa to smoulder. It appears that there was a smoke detector but it was not fitted with a working battery.”

Family friend, Michael Page, said the couple had met in London and married in 1971 before moving to Saffron Walden when they retired. Mr Holding had been an accountant and Mrs Holding had had a number of jobs including a waitress and a secretary.