Pensioner leapt to his death after fire was ‘deliberately’ started in his kitchen, inquest hears
PUBLISHED: 12:45 04 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:13 07 March 2016
An 85-year-old man leapt to his death after a fire was deliberately started in the kitchen of his sheltered accommodation.
Choi Yip jumped from the window of his third floor flat after a fire was deliberately started in his kitchen.
He died as a result of massive internal injuries sustained in the fall, but Coroner William Dolman said it was impossible to say why Mr Yip had taken the course of action that he did.
Fire engines took more than 13 minutes to reach Acton Court in Camden Road after they were called by other residents when the blaze broke out on October 26 last year – more than double the target response time.
The nearest fire crews were deployed in fighting a major blaze in Finchley Road, and there was speculation that the delayed response time could have caused or contributed to Mr Yip’s death.
But Dr Dolman said the evidence suggested Mr Yip would have been able to safely escape the fire during the time it took for the engines to arrive.
The coroner said that a note found at the flat, which was at first believed to be a suicide letter, was “a total red herring” because it was in fact a list of Mr Yip’s medical appointments written in Chinese.
CCTV showed Mr Yip falling from the window and hitting the ground at 10.48am, some seven minutes after the first call to the fire brigade was made at 10.41 and before the first engine arrived.
Fire investigations officer Owen Neale said that the six or seven minute gap would have given Mr Yip time to leave his flat, as he was mobile and was not trapped. Police, who arrived ahead of fire crew, found the door to his flat open.
When the first fire engine arrived at 10.54, Mr Yip had already been pronounced dead by paramedics.
Giving evidence, Mr Yip’s friend and neighbour, Karl Kosmo, said that Mr Yip had appeared distressed earlier in the morning.
Mr Yip did not speak English, and Mr Kosmo helped him make appointments and sort out other practical matters, although he could not speak Mr Yip’s mother tongue, Cantonese.
Mr Kosmo said that he had received a call from Mr Yip’s surgery to reschedule a GP appointment for later the same day, and went to Mr Yip’s flat to tell him this at about 9.30am.
When he arrived at Mr Yip’s home – just two doors down from his own at Ashton Court - he was on his mobile phone, apparently to a friend or relative in China, and seemed upset.
Mr Yip became more agitated after Mr Kosmo wrote down the message about the doctor’s appointment on a piece of paper.
Mr Kosmo said: “He pushed me away and slammed the door in my face. It was very unusual.”
In addition to not being able to speak English, Mr Kosmo said that his neighbour was “stone deaf in one ear and had a speech impediment.”
However, the inquest heard that Mr Yip had no history of psychiatric problems.
Mr Kosmo said that he was alerted to the fire by smoke alarms in the corridor going off. He said this was a common occurrence, so he wasn’t overly concerned, but left his flat when the smell of smoke became strong.
He said: “It seemed that the fire brigade was taking time to arrive, which was unusual.”
When the first fire crew arrived, Mr Yip had already gone out of the window, landing on the grass outside. A lighter was found beside Mr Yip’s body, and inside his flat there were numerous other lighters.
Fire investigations officer, Owen Neale, said the two smoke alarms in Mr Yip’s flat had failed to go off, possibly because the flat had very high ceilings, but the alarms in the main corridor had been triggered.
Mr Neale said the window would have been about chest height for Mr Yip, and that he would have had to climb up to jump out.
He said that the CCTV evidence showing Mr Yip jump was “partially obscured by a tree”.
The investigation revealed that the window and small screen television had been smashed by a claw hammer, found on a table.
The fire was apparently started deliberately in the kitchen, using a pile of newspapers. Mr Yip’s armchair cushions were also found in the kitchen, suggesting they could have been intended to add fuel to the fire.
£2700 in cash was found in amongst the newspapers.
Mr Neale said that the fire was “not a difficult one for a firefighter to extinguish, but it might have been for a man like Mr Yip.”
He said: “If it was an accidental fire, he would have had time to escape.”
Mr Neale said he was confident the fire had been started deliberately, but could not say whether Mr Yip had caused it himself. Police found no evidence of third party involvement.
In conclusion, the coroner said: “There is some curious evidence here. We cannot be sure what was in his mind.”
He said that the medical cause of death was injuries to his chest and head, and ruled the death an accident.
Speaking after the inquest, Mr Kosmo said he thought Mr Yip may have become highly agitated because he had been having problems sleeping, and was desperate for his GP to prescribe him sleeping pills.
He said: “I think it can really push you over the edge if you haven’t slept for days.”
But he said that, in his opinion, had the fire engines arrived sooner, it was possible the tragedy may have been prevented.
Mr Kosmo – who was described by the coroner as “a good Samaritan” to Mr Yip – said his neighbour led a fairly reclusive life, and had no contact with the Chinese community.
However, he left his flat most days to go to the shops, and was otherwise in reasonably good health for his age.
Mr Yip is believed to have arrived in the UK from mainland China around 1973. He never married or had children, and had previously worked as a chef.
Mr Kosmo had known Mr Yip for around 15 years, and said that his friend had “a tremendous sense of humour”.
A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said after the inquest: “This was a tragic fire and I would like to offer condolences from all at London Fire Brigade to the friends and family of Mr Yip.
“Following the fire in the sheltered accommodation block on Camden Road we carried out an extensive and thorough investigation. “In our evidence at today’s inquest we told the coroner we believe that the fire in the property was started deliberately and that our fire investigators have ruled out any other likely causes. Our thoughts remain with all those who have been affected.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ham&High. Click the link in the orange box above for details.