‘It was like an air strike.’ Inquest into Haxby house explosion hears of ‘complete destruction’ – and how ants could have been the cause

All that was left of the house in Springwood, Haxby, after the explosion. Photograph: Nigel Holland
10 Apr 2017 @ 4.37 pm
| News

The gas explosion which destroyed a York house caused such devastation witnesses thought it had been hit by a plane.

Paul Wilmott, 63, died in the explosion caused by the fracture of a corroded pipe at his home on Springwood, Haxby, in February 2016.

An inquest into his death heard that emergency services found a catastrophic scene with one house “completely missing” and others seriously damaged.

“It’s something I’ve never seen before. Complete destruction,” Yorkshire Ambulance Service paramedic Andrew Hewitson told the inquest at New Earswick.

“My first personal thought was it was a possible plane crash, the way the house had caved in.”

He added:

We arrived on the scene to destruction. The street was covered with debris, cars were covered with concrete.

Windows looked to be blown in, all the glass was shattered. Complete devastation.

It was obvious there was one house completely missing.

Virtually no house left

Michael Jamieson, a watch manager with North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, also described the scene to the jury of seven women and four men.

He said: “It was almost like an air strike. There was virtually no house left.”

He added: “I’ve been to gas explosions before but I’ve never seen something with that level of destruction.”

Mr Jamieson told the inquest he found Mr Wilmott’s body lying face down underneath rubble at the back of the house.

Mr Hewitson pronounced him dead after checks revealed he had no heartbeat or pulse and was not breathing.

The inquest heard that Mr Wilmott died as a result of multiple fractures of the skull and injuries to the brain consistent with having been sustained in a domestic explosion.

‘Extreme and pungent’ smell

Paul Wilmott, who died in the explosion

Coroner Rob Turnbull told the jury that an investigation by North Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive found that a corroded copper pipe, buried in the concrete floor when the house was built in the early 1970s, had fractured.

He said the pipe had fractured at the point where two concrete slabs met and there was evidence these slabs had moved, possibly as a result of bad weather leaving the surrounding ground waterlogged.

Mr Turnbull read a statement by Olivia Costello, Mr Wilmott’s partner of nine years.

Ms Costello, from Saltburn-by-the-Sea, said she and Mr Wilmott had noticed a smell in the house in the weeks before the explosion, but ruled out gas as the cause.

She said:

Paul and I noticed a strange smell in his house. It was very extreme and pungent.

To me, it smelt like something had died and was so horrible and strong it made me feel sick.

Paul and I discussed what the smell might be and came to the conclusion it was caused by a dead ants’ nest in the wall.

Fractured pipe

Badly damaged: Jacqui Stedman’s house, two doors down from the destroyed property. Photograph: Jack Gevertz

Dr Elizabeth Geary, a forensic metallurgist, later told the inquest the gas pipe had corroded and fractured in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room.

She said the corrosion could have been occurring since the house was built but the fracture was “fairly recent”.

She said: “It really was a very unique, localised phenomenon.”

Dr Geary told the jury a number of factors could have contributed to the corrosion, including moisture, ammonia-based chemicals or formic acid produced by an ants’ nest found in a wall nearby.

She said: “There was an ants’ nest nearby and ants produce formic acid, which can attack copper.”

The inquest was adjourned until Tuesday (April 11) when it is expected to conclude.