Bolted doors on a west Belfast hostel where two homeless men died in a fire could have led to an even bigger loss of life, it was claimed today.
John Leckey, the city’s coroner, also expressed major concerns after fire chiefs were unable to confirm when the last safety checks were carried out on the Morning Star shelter.
The inquest into the deaths of Hugo Brannigan, 62, and James ‘Jimbo’ Irvine, 32, in February 2002 heard the front door of the building was padlocked when the blaze broke out.
Another potential escape route – a back door - was also locked.
With Mr Irvine forced to sleep on the ground floor as his leg was in plaster, Mr Leckey insisted it was almost impossible for him to make it to a first floor exit during the emergency.
He said: “We have seen reports from the continent where night clubs have gone up in flames. Doors have been bolted and people unable to get out causing tremendous loss of life.
“That potential might have been in there in this hostel.”
His assessment was backed up by David McDonald, a firefighter who attended the blaze.
Investigations have found that the fire was most likely caused by an un-extinguished cigarette setting bedclothes alight.
Mr Leckey was forced to adjourn the hearing until he could get firm answers about what checks had been carried out on the hostel which had been run on Divis Street by the Catholic charity the Legion of Mary.
He demanded to know: “Who in the fire brigade carried out advance inspections and what were the results of that last inspection.”
Questioning the safety procedures he asked: “Had there been regular fire drills carried out on the premises?”
The coroner also wanted to know who licensed the shelter and called for a more senior police detective to be brought in to answer questions.
As he listed his concerns Mr Irvine’s sister, Josephine Joyce stood up and told the inquest the hostel had been fined £200 (€297.10).
She also claimed a safety certificate had been presented “years and years ago”.
Her intervention only added to Mr Leckey’s concerns.
He said: “The principal fact is that both the front and rear doors were locked and could not be opened by residents in the inside.
“Mr Irvine was in the dreadful position that the nearest working exit was on the first floor.”
Several other residents of the hostel also appeared to give evidence about their terrifying ordeal.
One of them, Brian Irvine told he had left Mr Irvine with some cigarettes in the recreation room where the fire broke out before he went to bed.
Later he awoke and found Mr Brannigan was not in the bedroom which he shared with him.
As he was making his escape Mr Irvine told the inquest: “I heard a faint voice saying ‘help, help, help’.
“The smoke was coming up in my face and after that I then went out the fire escape.”