Stephen Hampton inquest: 'Genuine, honest man' died after explosion in Swains Lane, court hears
PUBLISHED: 18:25 18 March 2019
An inquest into the death of a construction worker in Highgate today heard he was killed when a disused oil tank exploded – and the blast propelled a steel panel which hit and trapped him.
St Pancras Coroners’ Court heard how Stephen Hampton, 54, sustained critical injuries while using an oxyacetylene tool to cut through a metal cylinder (referred to as “tank three”), which was to be removed from a Swains Lane construction site on March 16, 2017. He later died from his wounds at Royal London Hospital.
Jurors, sworn in this morning, were told Stephen, a demolition site supervisor, unknowingly ignited gas inside the tanker, causing an explosion recorded at 180 decibels, compared to “the sound of a shotgun being discharged”.
Senior coroner Mary Hassell read a witness statement from Maria Freeman, whose ground property borders the building site.
Mrs Freeman said she complained of a “strong” and “pungent” smell of petrol coming from the site in the days leading up to the blast.
The court heard Ms Freeman was in her bedroom when she heard “a massive single explosion” followed by “silence” and then a “woman screaming”.
“I also felt an impact,” Maria was quoted as saying. “Presumably from the pressure. After the explosion I stayed indoors, as I was concerned there might be another.”
Det Sgt Martin Head, who didn’t attend the scene directly after the accident but led the Met’s investigation, told the court: “Evidence suggests that Mr Hampton [tried] to dismantle tank three by cutting it with the previously used oxygen cutter.
“Initially that proved sufficient and Stephen was able to cut the cylinder into three parts.
“But when efforts were made to dismantle tank three, which was in itself a sealed container, an explosion occurred.”
Det Sgt Head described “tank three” as a “three meter long cylinder made up of three separate compartments”.
Labourer Guy Hutchins was helping Stephen remove the disused drums on the day “tank three” exploded.
The removal process involved drilling through concrete to excavate tanks from under the earth, Mr Hutchins and Stephen then set to “draining” water, which they’re alleged to have found in the tanks.
The court heard how “tank three” had been unearthed the day on March 15, but was then reburied while they waited for a pump to get the water out “so there wasn’t a hole in the ground”.
Mr Hutchins said Stephen cut holes in two of the three aforementioned compartments so they could use a pump to drain the water out. The third section didn’t need to be drained as it was now light enough for them to pick up using an excavator.
The labourer said he had “concerns” about Stephen’s plan to cut the drum into pieces, as he thought the whole tanker could be carried off site.
He was worried “there might have been gas in there” but claimed “Stephen had it in his head that’s how he was doing it” and was “very experienced”.
Mr Hutchins told the court he was “20 or 30 meters away” from Stephen, with his back to his boss, when the victim cut into “tank three” and it exploded.
“As soon as I heard the explosion I found Steve lying under the lid of the tank,” he told the court.
“I threw the lid of the tank off him – it was heavy.”
Mr Hutchins then called 999.
“I was trying to speak to Stephen,” he said. “He was losing consciousness. He wasn’t replying to me. [...]
“His eyes were open but he was sort of looking through me.”
The historic Swains Lane plot was sold for commercial premise in the 1930s, before it was turned into a motor garage in the 1950s.
This necessitated fuel containers being buried underground. Three of these remained when the building project in question began, which sought to transform the patch into a mix of houses and shops.
The inquest is to hear evidence from Swains Lane Ltd, which owns the site; Mead Building, the construction firm; Material Movements, subcontracted to bulldoze the old premise; Chelmer Consultancy Services, which penned a “method statement” outlining how work should be conducted; and PJ Labour, which employed the workers.
Police initially led the investigation into the explosion and circumstances surrounding Stephen’s death, before handing it over to the Health and Safety Executive in 2017.
Jason Burgess wasn’t working on the Swains Lane site that day but had known Stephen for 24 years in both a working capacity and as a friend.
Mr Burgess, who nicknamed Stephen “Skin” due to his shaved head, also worked for PJ Labour. He said Stephen helped him get on its books but they hadn’t worked on a job together since January 2017. Mr Burgess’ statement was also conveyed by Ms Hassell.
“Stephen was a genuine honest man,” he’d told police officers during interview.
“Stephen was very experienced at demolition work – he often reigned me in if I was doing something risky or rushing it.
“He would say: ‘It will still be there tomorrow. Slow down a bit,’”
The court heard how Mr Burgess, on hearing of the explosion, “dropped his tools” and headed to the Royal London Hospital to see Stephen.
“I got there and arrived at the worst possible time,” he said. “I found out that Stephen had died.”
The inquest is listed until next Thursday.