‘Death trap’ Sunderland hostel had fire door padlocked during blaze

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HOTEL bosses put lives at risk after they padlocked a fire escape.

Firefighters discovered the potentially deadly blunder as they battled a blaze at the Norfolk Hotel in Sunderland, which houses men with drug and alcohol problems.

The Norfolk Hotel, Sunderland.

The Norfolk Hotel, Sunderland.

City magistrates were told that the decision by duty manager Andrew Chomko could have led to deaths and serious injuries.

Chomko, 55, of Merton Street, pleaded guilty to three breaches of fire safety regulations at Sunderland Magistrates’ Court.

Hostel licensee Manjeet Lally 47, of Stamfordham Road, admitted six charges and general manager Surkhjit, her husband, also 47, pleaded guilty to four charges.

Jim Wotherspoon, prosecuting for Sunderland City Council, which issued a Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) licence for the 42-bed property, told the court how fire crews were called to the 37-resident hostel, in Norfolk Street, on Sunday, November 18, after a fire broke out in a bedroom.

Crews discovered the fire exit nearest to the room on fire was padlocked shut with a heavy-duty bike lock.

Mr Wotherspoon told the court: “The consequences of that could have resulted in large-scale deaths and serious injuries.”

At first, the night porter was unable to find the key for the lock. When he eventually found it, he managed to snap it in the lock, which fire crews had to cut off.

When fire safety officer Richie Rickaby inspected the hostel, he also discovered a host of other problems, including a lack of safety training for staff and inadequate blaze detection equipment at key points in the building, including the communal kitchen.

Chomko was fined £180 and ordered to pay £85 in costs.

Jason Smith, defending him, said he had lost his home and his job after the Lallys gave up the hostel, following the prosecution.

“He takes full responsibility for his own actions and has done so throughout. He had become frustrated by a number of residents in the property and their nocturnal activities, and had tried to find a number of ways to secure that door which would still allow it to be used effectively for escape,” he said.

“But some of the residents they had in at that time were hell bent on over-occupying the premises by allowing their friends in for cannabis parties, drinking parties and any other sort of activities that might go on all night.

“That is in itself a fire safety risk, so you are left with a situation where you are between a rock and a hard place.”

Defending the Lallys, barrister Tony Cornberg said they did not know Chomko had locked the door.

He added there were more than 20 fire extinguishers in the building and other fire escapes were open.

He asked magistrates to consider reducing a fine for the Lallys, who were said to be on the brink of financial ruin and set to lose their £6million portfolio of properties following the case.

They were each fined £3,350, plus £1,913.13 costs.

Chairman of the bench Craig Tuthill said: “Although no harm was done to any residents, this was really very lucky indeed. If any harm was done, we would have been looking at a different case today. There could have been very serious injuries, or even death.”

The Norfolk Hotel has now reopened with new owners.

l Comment – Page 18

SPEAKING after the hearing, Kevin Hepple, Tyne and Wear Fire Rescue area manager for community safety, said: “During this serious fire incident, the final exit on the means of escape was padlocked shut, preventing the occupants from safely evacuating the premises via the shortest possible route, which is totally unacceptable.

“This put the lives of staff and the occupants at serious risk. When we considered this and other fire safety breaches found during the post-fire safety inspection, prosecution was the only option for the service. “Our preferred option is to work closely through engagement with the business community to offer free fire safety advice and support; but in the most serious cases such as this one, we will not hesitate to exercise our legal powers to ensure the safety of the public.”

Councillor Graeme Miller, Sunderland City Council portfolio holder for Health, Housing and Adult Services said: “The council is committed to driving up standards of accommodation and safety within hostels which house some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, and it works closely with good landlords to raise standards.

“However, the council also prosecutes poor landlords who put their tenants health and lives at risk and it supports the work of partners, such as the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, which successfully brought this prosecution.

Councillor Tom Wright, Fire Authority chairman said: “The fire safety breaches found in the Norfolk Hotel were unacceptable, putting lives at risk. Every resident in the Tyne and Wear area should have the right to stay safe in premises which have the highest possible fire safety standards.”