Garage fire which killed Sunderland homeless man Mark Herron was possibly started by cigarette, inquest hears

A man who died in an ‘unsurvivable’ blaze was suspected of arson before his body was found in the rubble days later, an inquest heard.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 5:22 pm

The body of Mark James Herron was discovered in the remains of a detached garage in Tunstall Village Green days after it was destroyed in a fire on February 18, 2020.

A murder investigation was initially launched and a man, who was 38 at the time, was arrested in suspicion of murder after human remains were recovered – but was later released with no further action.

Northumbria Police confirmed in July 2020 that they were satisfied no one else was involved in Mr Herron’s death or the fire.

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Mark Harron sadly died in the Tunstall Village Green blaze.
Mark Harron sadly died in the Tunstall Village Green blaze.

An inquest into the 53-year-old’s death heard how police officers had been in contact with Mr Herron on the day of his death and had taken him to hospital in an intoxicated state after he refused to leave a Sunderland McDonald’s.

When he was discharged, officers were called again as Mr Herron, who was well known to police, was causing an issue for security staff.

Two officers then dropped him off outside a friend’s home – where his body was later found in the property’s garage – on the evening of the fatal blaze.

The friend had told Mr Herron he couldn’t spend the night but Mr Herron, who was homeless, had entered the garage on the premises before the fire broke out.

Specialist search team at the scene of a garage fire in Tunstall Village Green.

When emergency services were first called to the scene, no one was believed to have been inside the commercial garage and firefighters battled for over an hour to bring the ‘large ferocious flames’ under control.

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The roof and first floor of the commercial garage collapsed and the unstable building was too dangerous to enter, said Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service watch manager Ian Robinson, who described the fire as ‘unsurvivable’.

Giving evidence at the inquest, DCI Graeme Dodds said: "It was determined, quite quickly by police in attendance following the fire, that [Mr Herron] would be a suspect for the offence of arson.

Horse drawn carriage arrives at Sunderland Crematorium for the funeral of Mark Herron

"He was then not seen following being given that status which was out of character for him.

"He was encountered not only by his family very regularly but quite often by the police so a missing person report was created at 9.46pm on Wednesday, February 19, where he was assessed as being medium risk."

Mr Herron failed to check in with his probation officer and his family reported him missing – raising concerns that he may have been in the garage.

Floral tributes left for the funeral of Mark Herron at Sunderland Crematorium

Following an assessment, a search with a cadaver dog was carried out at the garage on the morning of Sunday, February 23.

Human remains were discovered under the rubble which were later identified as Mr Herron – and a man was arrested on suspicion of murder.

The inquest heard how a forensic scientist who attended the scene ruled out arson and said evidence gave an indication that the fire started near Mr Herron’s body.

DCI Dodds added: "[The forensic scientist] felt that in terms of the time frame there would be a credible argument that it could have been started by a lit cigarette having taken hold into a large fire in the area where Mr Herron lay – or a naked flame from a candle or a match or lighter in similar circumstances.”

Summing up the post-mortem report by Dr Nigel Cooper, senior coroner Derek Winter said: “Mark Herron has died from the combined effects of burns and smoke inhalation – the latter was evident in the form of large quantities of soot in the main airways with black soot in some smaller bronchi."

A toxicology report also revealed Mr Herron had alcohol in his system which was more than three times the legal driving limit at the time of his death.

On Wednesday, May 18, Mr Winter concluded Mr Herron’s death was accidental following the inquest hearing at Sunderland Coroner’s Court.

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