Families pay heartbreaking tributes to loved ones who died after St Leonards hospice fire

An inquest examining the deaths of three people following a fire at a St Leonards hospice has heard details about the tragic night.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 7:51 am

Jill Moon, 62, David Denness, 81 and Pearl Spencer, 78, died after the blaze at St Michael’s Hospice on July, 11, 2015.

On Monday (November 18), a number of their relatives joined former and current members of staff from the hospice for the first day of the inquest in Hastings.

The proceedings had been postponed pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings against St Michael’s Hospice.

Three people died as a result of the fire in 2015
Three people died as a result of the fire in 2015

The hospice was fined £250,000, in March 2018, after pleading guilty to two breaches in fire safety laws.

The inquest heard that shortly after midnight on July 11, 2015, a fire started on the bed occupied by hospice patient Rodney Smith.

Mr Smith, who had been suffering from cancer, was charged with arson but died in jail, aged 67, before his trial.

On the night of the fire, he was sleeping in the ground floor men’s ward alongside three other male patients, including Terrence Hayden who said he noticed ‘an orange light’ coming from Mr Smith’s bed.

In a statement read to the court, Mr Hayden said he saw Mr Smith run from the room before he called for assistance.

Catherine Powiss, a registered nurse at the hospice, responded to the call and found Mr Smith’s bed on fire when she entered the room. She told the court an oxygen cylinder which was located close to the bed was causing the fire to spread quickly.

She said she went back into the hallway and set off the fire alarm before attempting to evacuate the patients while smoke began filling the hallway.

Inside the room was David Denness who, while unconscious, was wheeled out of the room in his bed, and taken to another room further down the hallway, before eventually being taken outside once the fire service arrived.

He was then taken to Conquest Hospital but died at 12.45am the next day.

In a statement read to the court, his daughter Alvera said, despite her father being terminally ill, she had expected his last days to be as ‘calm and care free as possible’.

She said the hospice should be held accountable for the risks it created for patients and staff but said ‘nothing would be gained by a fine’.

Florence Moon, the daughter of Jill Moon, told the inquest on Monday that she had been with her mother, who was living with endometrial cancer, the day before the fire.

She said her mother had become very weak by that stage, however, she said she would never have expected her to have died the next day as a result of her cancer.

On the night of the fire, Mrs Moon had been sleeping in the women’s ward on the ground floor.

Catherine Gibbs, a staff nurse at home for the hospice, said the smoke was so thick in the women’s ward by the time she got there that she could only find Mrs Moon’s bed, which she wheeled down the hallway.

Realising Mrs Moon was still in the bed, she took her to the room where Mr Denness was before Mrs Moon was taken to Conquest Hospital.

Florence told the court she was woken on the day of the fire at 4am when the house phone rang. Recalling the moment her sister told her there had been a fire at the hospice, Florence said she felt ‘panicked and short of breath’.

Mrs Moon’s family were told she had been rescued and taken to Conquest Hospital but when they arrived, they found her ‘covered in soot’ and screaming at them to take her home.

Florence said: “I knelt down beside my mum’s bed. It didn’t look like her.

“I told her what an amazing mum she had been. I did not want to let her go.

“She had gone through a terrible ordeal on top of a terrible illness.”

Shortly afterwards, Mrs Moon’s family was told she had died.

Florence added: “My mother Jill was a kind, generous and dearly caring person who had a positive energy despite being diagnosed with cancer in July 2014.

“She was brave and strong. Her sense of humour was a big part of who she was.

“She showed love, compassion and support, not only to her friends and family, but also to those she taught.”

Mrs Moon’s husband William Paul Moon told the inquest the hospice staff ‘did all they could up against an impossible task in these tragic circumstances’.

The inquest also heard from the family of Pearl Spencer who, alongside a number of patients, was transferred to the Leolyn care home after the fire broke out.

Her husband David, who has since died, said he was only made aware of the fire when he arrived at the hospice at about 10am on July 11.

He said he was told his wife of 56 years had been taken to the Leolyn care home and after waiting half an hour outside her room, he said she died.

Samantha Hills, a senior healthcare assistant who was called to the hospice to help with the evacuation, told the court she helped Mrs Spencer to the Leolyn care home around the corner. She said the only room available was on the top floor so she carried Mrs Spencer up the stairs.

She said she then left her with a colleague while she helped police arrest Mr Smith.

The inquest, in Hastings, continues.