Smouldering ruin where two firemen died

5th December 2006

Aftermath: The devastated fireworks factory and the owner's wrecked house

Some buildings have vanished altogether. The rest have been reduced to charred and buckled shells.

Timber, twisted sheets of metal and other debris are scattered across the smouldering site of the former fireworks factory.

Even the owner’s house has been reduced to the charred stumps of its groundfloor walls. More debris floats in the pool beside it.

It was here on Sunday, at the Festival Fireworks plant near Lewes in East Sussex, that two firemen lost their lives in a huge explosion that shook windows for miles around.

Fire service colleagues led the tributes to part-timer Geoff Wicker and support officer Brian Wembridge.

Des Prichard, head of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said: "These are not faceless members of staff. I know these two people personally.

"This hurts me. It is a very traumatic and shocking event."

The Union flag flew at half-mast at Heathfield fire station, where 49-year-old Mr Wicker was a retained fireman.

He lived with his wife Heather and two teenage daughters Yvette, 17, and Francesca, 15, a mile from the station.

A bouquet of red roses and white carnations had been left outside by the girls.

Mr Wicker worked at the force headquarters’ control room and two years ago had climbed Ben Nevis (Scotland's highest mountain), Scafell Pike (England's highest mountain) and Snowdon (Wales's highest mountain) to raise money for the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund.

Mr Wembridge, 63, was a fireman at nearby Crowborough before he retired but continued to work as a part-time photographer for the service, capturing evidence.

The father of two grown-up sons is thought to have been taking pictures when the factory exploded.

Some firemen were close to tears at the station yesterday, where several bunches of flowers had been left there, too.

One message to Mr Wembridge read: "Always there when needed, you died in the service you loved. Never will you be forgotten."

Former sub-officer Roger Bradgate, who worked with both men for years, said he was "devastated."

"Both of them worked tirelessly on behalf of the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund and in their service with the brigade," he said. "They will be greatly missed."

Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly said: "Thankfully, events like this are rare but it serves as a reminder of the huge risks that firefighters face every day in order to protect the rest of us."

The Festival Fireworks site and the home of owner Martin Winter were deemed too dangerous for police and investigators to enter.

The business – like all those storing large quantities of fireworks – was licensed by the Health and Safety Executive whose inspectors last made a routine visit on October 11.

The company – with an annual turnover of around 750,000 – has helped stage displays at home and abroad, including the Millennium display on the banks of the Thames.

Until 2001 the firm was known as Sussex Fireworks and Displays. In December 1999 it was fined 1,000 for storing fireworks at an unlicensed site next to the current site.

Jason Winter, a nephew of the owner, said: "My family were working inside but they managed to get out OK. They have lost everything – their home, garage, vehicles and business. Even our dog has died."

Fire chief Mr Prichard said the explosion happened as more fire crews were being sent in to support those already there.

An inquiry will want to know why firemen decided to get near the factory. Nine fire service staff, two members of the public and a police sergeant were hurt in the explosion.

This was the scene as fire swept through a firework warehouse, Festival Fireworks, near Lewes, East Sussex.

The aerial view taken the following morning shows the extent of the damage. An explosion took the lives of two firemen, retired firefighter Brian Wembridge, 63, and his colleague Geoff Wicker. Twelve others were injured in the blaze.

Those injured included nine fire service staff, two members of the public and a police sergeant.

East Sussex fire chief Des Prichard described as 'very traumatic' the impact the fire had on colleagues.