Fri, Nov 15, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Four deaths raise pressure at start of UK firefighter strike


Soldiers try to put out a car fire in Cambridge on Wednesday.


The deaths of four people in house fires overnight increased the pressure on Britain's government yesterday to end the first nationwide firefighters' strike in 25 years.

The 48-hour strike, which started at 6pm on Wednesday, has diverted military personnel from preparations for a possible war with Iraq, and comes as Britons are being warned of possible terror attacks in the run-up to Christmas.

Two elderly men and one woman were reported to have died in separate house fires in Newton, Wales; in Burnley in north England and at Halesowen in the West Midlands.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told parliament of a fourth fatality but gave no details.

The mood among striking firemen in Stratford-upon-Avon, in central England, was defiant but downbeat yesterday.

"The mood was very somber last night, it was depressing, nobody wants to do it," leading firefighter John Vale said. "They are all in the same position, where they feel they have been pushed into a corner."

It was not immediately clear whether any of the deaths could have been prevented had the firefighters been at work. But in the Halesowen case, soldiers providing emergency cover in archaic "Green Goddess" fire engines took 20 minutes to reach the scene.

Police and ambulance workers were not equipped to enter the building. Local media said there was a fire station nearby.

Prescott said a two-day strike was bad but a planned eight-day stoppage would be a disaster.

"Wouldn't it be better to negotiate? Wouldn't it better to sit down again?" he asked. "Because an eight-day strike can only lead to more deaths, more injuries and more distress."

Officials said the government would consider marching into fire stations and taking their modern appliances if longer strikes went ahead, crossing picket lines in the process.

There was little sign of progress in resolving the dispute.

Fire Brigades Union chief Andy Gilchrist addressed union members at a meeting in Edinburgh. Media were barred from the event but he later told reporters he had informed members he was still waiting for a pay offer from the government.

"What we've always said as a highly democratic organization is if we get a serious and significant offer ... that would be put to the entire membership," Gilchrist told Sky news.

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