tragic: Hugh and Margaret Cowan.
Mother of two Alison Hume, 43, spent more than seven hours at the bottom of the collapsed shaft she fell down near Galston, East Ayrshire, in July 2008.
Sheriff Desmond J Leslie, in his judgment yesterday, after a Fatal Accident Inquiry, said Mrs Hume’s death was partly caused by senior fire officers rigidly sticking to health and safety protocols.
Mrs Hume, of Ayr, was severely injured and suffering from hypothermia. She was pulled to the surface and died from a heart attack.
The inquiry ruled Mrs Hume could have been saved had rescuers acted sooner.
Criminal charges may now be brought against commanding officers involved in the rescue. Sheriff Leslie’s report is currently being considered by the procurator-fiscal.
Mrs Hume’s stepfather, Hugh Cowan, said he and his wife Margaret felt their daughter’s death was needless. He said: “The report more or less tells us our daughter should not have died. It’s really very tragic.”
Sheriff Leslie said at least 18 firefighters wanted to push on with the rescue operation, but were halted by their superiors, who followed procedure to call mountain rescue teams.
The rescue crew arrived at 6am after equipment and personnel were assembled, some four hours after the 999 call was made by Mrs Hume’s teenage daughter.
A paramedic was also told to remove his harness and halt an attempt to reach Mrs Hume because he was not familiar with fire service equipment.
Sheriff Leslie said that some degree of “imagination, flexibility and adaptability were necessary” in conducting a rescue of this kind. He described “a preoccupation with adherence to Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service policy which was entirely detached from the event with which Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service was confronted.”
He said: “There was clearly a balance to be struck between the interests and safety of the rescuers, and those of the casualty they were there to rescue.”
Sheriff Leslie directly criticised two senior officers, group commanders Paul Stewart and William Thomson, for their attitudes at the inquiry. He said they were “focused on self-justification for the action or non-action taken by them”.
The sheriff said: “I found their evidence to be bullish, if not arrogant, in their determination to justify the subservience of the need to carry out a rescue to the letter of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service Brigade policy.”
The report also noted arguments heard during the inquiry from Mr Stewart and Assistant Chief Fire Officer Walker that the type of rescue required on the night was “not within the parameters of their engagement”.
Both officers argued their mandate to rescue did not extend to mine shafts, but the sheriff said he had not been pointed to any such legislation.
John Duffy, of the Fire Brigades Union Scotland, said: “If we are going to do these specialist rescues you need specialist teams who know what they are doing and know how to use the equipment. We have three statutory functions -- to fight fires, prevent fires and deal with road accidents. The problem is we are being asked to do a whole range of duties with no more funding.”
Strathclyde Fire & Rescue’s Director of Operations, Assistant Chief Officer David Goodhew, said it was an “enormous regret” the brigade was not able to rescue Ms Hume.
“This was a uniquely challenging and complex situation. Despite the fact mines rescue is a highly specialised skill, and fire crews are neither trained nor equipped to deal with this specific situation, the sheriff himself acknowledged firefighting personnel risked their own lives to tend to Alison in the shaft and stabilise her condition.”
Damages have been paid to some members of Mrs Hume’s family by the Coal Authority under legislation designed to minimise risk from subsided coal mines and shafts.