Contradicting evidence heard at ongoing Penhallow Hotel inquest
THE Penhallow Hotel's night porter was seen "crying uncontrollably" in the wake of the devastating fire which claimed the lives of three guests, an inquest has heard.
Chris Gunn, 45, gave his version of events on that fateful night in Newquay, in August 2007, at the inquest into the deaths of guests Monica Hughes, Peter Hughes and Joan Harper.
The inquest heard how Mr Gunn denied phoning manager Andy Woollam to warn him of the fire – contradicting Mr Woollam's evidence last week that the porter had rung him in his staff quarters.
Later he clarified the call, saying: "I did try to contact management in their flat, but I couldn't get through."
The court also heard the transcript of Mr Gunn's 999 call. The jury was told he had taken the hotel's wireless phone home after the blaze, as he had left it in his pocket; he later handed it in to the police.
Part of the 999 document read:
999: "Are there signs of fire?"
Gunn: "Yes – I can see smoke – it's behind the bar."
999: "So, the hotel is on fire?"
But questioned by coroner for Cornwall Emma Carlyon, Mr Gunn declined to explain his comments, recorded by the emergency services.
Dr Carlyon asked Mr Gunn:
"Why did you say to the 999 operator, 'Yes, I can see smoke behind the bar'?
"If the bar was closed – then how could you see fire or smoke?
"How did you know this was not a false alarm?
"Where was Mike Billington at the time?
"Could you exclude him being in the bar?
"Do you know of any reason the fire might have started in the bar?"
To all of which, Mr Gunn offered no reply.
But he insisted that the first he saw of barman Michael Billington as the drama unfolded was "on the first floor landing".
Mr Gunn's wife Julie, a head waitress at the Beresford in Newquay, recalled seeing her husband outside the blazing hotel.
She said: "Chris was crying uncontrollably. I've never seen him like that before – he said that the lights had flickered, and then the fire alarm had gone off. He was very emotional."
Asked by police about possible arson, she said during interview: "Chris has at no time made any disclosure to me suggesting that he was responsible for the fire at Penhallow, or suggested that anyone else was responsible."
Earlier this week, the inquest also heard evidence from the couple in charge of the hotel.
Sarah-Jane Duffy and Andy Woollam were on a day off from their weekly duties at the hotel when tragedy struck, the court was told.
The couple both declined to answer many of a series of questions about the upkeep and checking of the hotel's fire alarm system, fire drills, and staff fire training at the inquest at Truro Crown Court.
Accusations were also levelled at Mr Woollam by the Penhallow's kitchen porter, who allegedly told a colleague after the fire that Mr Woollam once asked him to "burn his car out", so he could claim on the insurance.
The fresh lead was made public amid a wealth of conflicting and confused evidence heard at the court this week.
Asked if he wanted to add any other information, Mr Billington said: "I remember David Reid (kitchen porter) came to me after the fire saying Andy Woollam asked him to burn his car out for him for insurance money. I remember him saying that as clear as day."
The coroner dismissed the remark, explaining in court that claims had already 'been investigated'.
The case continues.