News update, January 16, 2018: Fire investigators say the structure of Cameron House after the fire which killed two young men in December is unsafe to enter to carry out an investigation into what caused the conflagration which swept through Loch Lomondside leading hotel just before Christmas.
This editorial by Kenneth Roy appeared in the Scottish Review raises disturbing questions about the lack of transparency after Cameron House fire:
January 10, 2018
Social media pages which remain open after the account-holder’s death leave a poignant footprint, especially pronounced when the page has been an active one until very near the end. This was true in the case of Simon Midgley, the young journalist who died in the fire at Cameron House on the banks of Loch Lomond a week before Christmas.
Mr Midgley’s Twitter account is still there to be accessed. If you hadn’t heard what happened to him in the early hours of Monday 18 December, you might just assume that he was taking a break from messaging.
He posted daily messages in the last week of his life. On Thursday the 14th, probably the day of his arrival in Glasgow, he paid a ‘flying visit’ to the Kelvingrove art gallery, was amused by the traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington’s statue, had a delicious meal in the Alchemilla restaurant and an early night at an up-market B&B. The following day, pursuing his ‘love of a good graveyard walk,’ he wandered through the Glasgow Necropolis. On Saturday the 16th, his cultural tour took in the Glasgow School of Art, ‘sadly still under refurbishment after the terrible fire in 2014,’ where he admired Charlie Rennie Mackintosh’s furniture designs.
That weekend, he and his partner Richard Dyson, a television producer, moved from Glasgow to Luss. We know that they spent Sunday evening in their hotel room watching a Christmas film on Channel 5: it is the subject of Simon Midgley’s last message.
With their references to fire and death, there is almost a premonitory quality about these brief notes. But what then?
The alarm was raised at 6.41am on the 18th. Fourteen fire engines attended a blaze which may have swept through voids in the building, ’empty spaces which act like chimneys,’ as one newspaper report put it. The initial posts on the hotel’s website gave no indication of the gravity of the situation. It was being referred to as an ‘incident’, with an indication that the hotel might re-open within 72 hours.
Even at the time, this optimism seemed misplaced. According to some reports, it took 24 hours to extinguish the fire. And, while more than 200 guests were successfully evacuated, two others from the upper floors perished. The body of one man was found close to a window, the suggestion being that he had attempted to force his way out before being overcome. There appears to have been an attempt to resuscitate a second man in the grounds of the hotel, but he died later in hospital.
It then emerged that the victims were a couple: Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson. Almost four weeks later, we are still waiting to be told officially which of them died in the room and which in hospital. If the media are being informed on a need to know basis, it seems we don’t need to know very much.
On 21 December, just before the Scottish parliament broke for the Christmas recess, the first minister made a statement: ‘Of course there will be a thorough investigation into what happened at Cameron House and it is important that that investigation is allowed to run its course, but I can give an assurance today that the Scottish government, with our partners and indeed with the owners of Cameron House Hotel, will make sure that any lessons that emerge from that investigation are learned and fully applied.’
There was only one cliché, only one oddity, and only one giveaway about the statement. The cliché – so ridiculed it is astonishing that politicians go on using it – was the one about ‘lessons learned’ (and, of course, ‘fully applied’).
The oddity was the coupling of the Scottish government and its ‘partners’ with the un-named owners. The ‘partners’ came as no surprise. In official Scotland, no-one is allowed to take sole responsibility for anything that goes wrong; it is easier to blunder in partnership. But it did seem slightly strange that Ms Sturgeon felt able to speak on behalf of the American owners. Were they – come to that, are they – not capable of speaking for themselves?
The giveaway was the undertaking that the investigation would be allowed to ‘run its course.’ We are wearily accustomed in Scotland to investigations that are allowed to run their course. The investigation into the police helicopter crash at the Clutha Bar in Glasgow four years and two months ago, which claimed 10 lives, is still ‘running its course’ (as Ms Sturgeon would say) – and will go on running its course all the way to the autumn, when the fifth anniversary may be marked by the actual opening of a fatal accident inquiry.
This isn’t bad going. Some fatal accident inquiries take even longer. Some never happen at all.
The investigation at Cameron House has begun in the predictably stately fashion, while media enquiries are routinely dismissed. On 27 December, several newspapers quoted staff sources that the fire started in the Christmas tree in reception and that this fact was relayed to the emergency services in the original 999 call. The management promptly issued a denial of the claim; the police wouldn’t comment. There has been nothing since – apart from yesterday’s news, respectfully received by the Scottish press, that the Crown Office has sent in its ‘Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit.’ Sounds impressive – unless you are familiar with the glacial progress and poor morale for which that under-resourced unit is known.
If Scotland had adopted the English coroner system, where there is an
obligation to public accountability at an early stage, we would already know where, when and how Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson died. An initial inquest would have been held, establishing basic facts, and then adjourned pending further inquiry as to causes. There would have been a sense of transparency about the proceedings.
In Scotland, there is little or no transparency. The official statement, ‘A report has been sent to the procurator fiscal,’ often signifies the last we ever hear of unexplained deaths. If a report on Cameron House has not already gone to the procurator fiscal, expect it to be winging its way soon. But who is the procurator fiscal? He is not some omnipotent being. He is typically a rather undistinguished functionary of the Crown Office, underpaid, overworked, and fallible. If this is the best we can do to account for the deaths of Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson, it is unimpressive.
In the absence of any reliable information, speculation is inevitable. I turned for enlightenment to TripAdvisor. Like other social media sites, it should be approached with caution. Yet, I have found from personal experience that, although the occasional bad review can be ignored, a pattern of bad reviews is worth taking seriously. In the fortnight before the fire, Cameron House attracted too many bad reviews – a string of absolute stinkers – for a hotel of its (AA 5-star) quality. The main complaints cropped up repeatedly: about young, inexperienced staff, poor housekeeping and sub-standard service.
One guest posted at length about the heating – or lack of it – in her room. After she phoned reception to complain, a member of staff came to have a look. The guest was told that if it didn’t get any warmer she should phone back. After 30 minutes she did. A maintenance man arrived and hoovered litter from the air conditioning system. The guest went down to dinner. When she returned, the room was still cold. She again phoned reception, and a member of staff brought a heater. She plugged it in. It didn’t work. Was this a problem with the heater – or, more ominously, with the hotel’s electrical system?
More disturbing still is the appalling speed with which the fire appears to have spread through the funnel provided by those voids in the fabric. Cameron House is not unique. There will be many old hotels in Scotland with similar features. Jackie Baillie, the Labour MSP, asked in the Scottish parliament if there might be a need to review building regulations for hotels. If there is such a need, it should be regarded as urgent: for the family of Simon Midgley; for the family of Richard Dyson; and for the rest of us, who no longer enter a hotel without thinking of the horror at Cameron House. But at 25 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, home of the Crown Office, ‘urgent’ is a foreign word.
The Cameron House Hotel fire victims Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson.