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March 27, 2009

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Dreamspace artist failed to heed warning signs

The creator of a giant inflatable art work, which broke free of its

moorings in strong winds, killing two women, has been fined £10,000

after a jury found him guilty of health and safety failings.

Maurice Agis, 76, was sentenced yesterday (Thursday) at Newcastle Crown Court after being found guilty of an offence under s3(2) of the HSWA 1974, at an earlier hearing on 24 February. A jury in the earlier hearing had been discharged after failing to reach a verdict on two charges of gross negligence manslaughter against Agis, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided against asking for a retrial in respect of these offences.

The Dreamspace structure — which was made of plastic sheeting glued together to form a large number of cubes, through which people could wander and enjoy an audio-visual experience — was being displayed at Riverside Park, Chester-le-Street, Durham, in July 2006. On the afternoon of 23 July, a gust of wind lifted the artwork 30 feet up into the air, taking people inside with it. Two people, who were inside the structure at the time, were killed — 38-year-old Claire Furmedge and 68-year-old Anne Collings. Twenty-seven adults and children were also injured.

The structure had earlier been displayed in Liverpool, where it had been fixed to a concrete base, using water containers. But at Chester-le-Street, the structure was attached to the ground by an inadequate number of pegs, particularly at the rear — the direction in which the wind was blowing.

Durham Constabulary’s Det. Supt. Neil Malkin, who headed the operation as part of a joint inquiry with the HSE, said: “There was obviously an inherent design fault. On that fateful day there was a light breeze — and there were warning signs the structure was starting to lift. The instability was such that [Brouhaha] employees started to evacuate people but the artist stopped that — which directly attributed to the tragedy.

“Mr Agis, however, seemed more intent on getting paying customers inside rather than showing the duty of care he owed to the public.”

The HSE’s head of operations, Pam Waldron, told SHP that Agis insisted the structure was safe and instructed the workers to use more pegs to secure it. The judge found Agis’ failure to heed these warning signs as compelling. It was also heard that prior to the incident, Agis had visited B&Q to buy more rope from a section labelled as for general purpose and fastening.

Inspector Waldron stressed that the fundamental problem in the case was the complete lack of any structural design.

“For something the size of Dreamspace — 50m x 50m x 5m high — we would expect the structure to be designed by a competent person who understood the forces involved — particularly wind forces — and could calculate what anchorage arrangements should be used.”

She continued: “They would also specify operating parameters and emergency procedures, neither of which existed for Dreamspace. While it was a complex structure, the steps to take to keep it safe were straightforward and well-established.”

The investigation was the most complex ever carried out by Durham Constabulary, and was made more challenging owing to the fact that the structure had been ripped to shreds by investigators, and there were no drawings to show how it had been erected and anchored. Said Inspector Waldron: “Some assumptions had to be made about how the ropes and pegs were arranged because of the absence of information. That only serves to show the artist’s complete disregard for the safety of the structure.”

The extensive evidence collected also revealed that lessons from a previous near-disaster had not been learned. Although successive versions of the structure had grown over the years, the number of stakes used to fix it to the ground had always remained at 40. A smaller version had been erected in Travermunde, Germany in 1986. In this incident, a strong wind tore the artwork loose from its moorings, throwing visitors against the promenade and beach.

Det. Supt. Malkin explained: “Because there was a strong wind the authorities treated it as a tragic accident. Fortunately, no one was killed, but one would have thought lessons from that day would have been learned.”

Chester-Le-Street District Council, which invited Agis to display his creation in the park, was in charge of assessing the safety of the structure. It had already pleaded guilty to a charge under s3(1) of the HSWA 1974, and was fined £20,000. Promotions company, Brouhaha International Ltd, helped to stage the event. It had also pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing, and was fined £4000 for a breach of s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It told the court that it now seeks competent advice to assess the risks of events. No costs were awarded.

In a statement, the council said: “The basis of [our] plea was centred on the council being the landowner of Riverside Park, and helping to promote the event for which there are certain health and safety responsibilities. The council sought to rely on what turned out to be a failure by a district-wide safety advisory group to investigate more fully the risk assessment provided by Maurice Agis relating to Dreamspace.”

It also stressed its excellent health and safety record and confirmed it had received no recommendations from the HSE regarding any improvements that could be made to its policies and systems. However, during the investigation, the HSE issued an operational notice to all local authorities warning them of the lessons that should be learnt.

Pam Waldron told SHP: “Chester-le-Street Council accepted that there was wholly inadequate scrutiny of the risk assessment.” She also said that the safety advisory group had considered the event application in the absence of any health and safety experts, and no minutes from the meeting had been circulated.

The families of the two victims, said: “[We] are relieved that this process is over but extremely disappointed and angry that the artist was not convicted of gross negligence manslaughter charges following a five-week trial.”

At the families’ request, Durham Constabulary has agreed to work with the HSE to review the evidential issues that led to the CPS’s decision not to retry Agis.

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