An investigation by The Argus has prompted East Sussex Trading Standards to examine the activities of a firework firm connected to a deadly explosion in 2006 near Lewes. Bill Gardner reports.
A family who caused the deaths of two firemen in a deadly fireworks blast is still supplying explosives – without a licence.
Following an investigation by The Argus, East Sussex Trading Standards confirmed it would “examine” the activities of Wizard Fireworks Ltd, based at Marlie Farm near Lewes.
Martin Winter and his son Nathan were convicted of manslaughter following an inferno at the family-owned farm in 2006.
But three years after the pair were handed lengthy jail terms for manslaughter, Martin Winter’s son Stuart, 25, is still supplying fireworks from the family home and putting on large public displays across the county.
Wizard Fireworks is trading from Marlie Farm industrial estate, where fireman Geoff Wicker and support officer Brian Wembridge died (pictured above) six years ago this week.
However, both the Health and Safety Executive and East Sussex County Council confirmed Stuart Winter had not been granted a permit to supply fireworks.
According to the Fireworks Regulations 2004, anyone “supplying or exposing for supply any adult firework” must obtain a special sales licence, apart from on dates around Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve and Divali.
When contacted, Mr Winter claimed he was a wholesaler rather than a retailer so was not subject to the regulations, although the legislation refers to all “suppliers” of explosives.
Despite Wizard Fireworks not having a permit, bonfire societies across Sussex told The Argus they have been buying their explosives from Mr Winter while his father and brother are serving their time in jail.
In 2011 and 2012, he supplied fireworks to Burgess Hill bonfire society before putting on a spectacular pyrotechnic display attended by hundreds of people.
Both events were held in September, outside the dates when firework sales are allowed by law without a permit. Another society in Staplecross twice obtained pyrotechnics from Mr Winter in the past two years.
He also supplied fireworks to the public through a website until days ago, when the site was taken down “for maintenance”.
'Never sold fireworks'
The company is headquartered in a brand new five-bedroom mansion built by the Winters on Marlie Farm since the accident, complete with dressing rooms, en-suite bathrooms, a triple detached garage and a tennis court, according to the planning application seen by The Argus.
Records obtained by the newspaper showed Wizard had assets worth nearly £100,000 this year.
When first challenged over his business activities, Stuart Winter insisted he had in fact “never sold fireworks at all”.
He later admitted giving public firework displays and supplying the fireworks but said he stored his explosives legally, not on Marlie Farm but on a licensed premises elsewhere.
He said he did not need a sales licence despite supplying his fireworks to the small bonfire societies before setting them off.
A spokeswoman for East Sussex County Council Trading Standards accepted they were responsible for enforcing Firework Regulations 2004 and said they would be “examining the points raised by The Argus”.
Jim Parrott, Fire Brigade Union executive council member for the South East, was on duty during the Marlie Farm blast and speaks on behalf of the victims’ bereaved families.
He said the Argus investigation into the Winters showed “someone was not doing their job properly”.
He said: “This will stick in the throats of the families. It’s unbelievable that the Winters are still supplying fireworks at all – let alone without a licence.
“My main concern is that The Argus has uncovered this rather than the authorities. Clearly this has slipped completely under the radar.
“The whole way that risk is identified is clearly not robust enough.”
Both Staplecross and Burgess Hill bonfire societies said Wizard Fireworks had supplied the pyrotechnics for their events and had set them off.
One bonfire society chairman insisted: “We were sure he had a permit because it’s a firework company. If he supplies fireworks he must have had a licence.”
After the 2006 accident, the Winter family changed the name of their business from Festival Fireworks to Alpha.
But the Health and Safety Executive refused to allow the firm to continue manufacturing and storing explosives and revoked the new company’s licence.
When the Winters’ appeal against the decision was refused, Alpha folded soon after in March 2009.
However, the official company records show Wizard Fireworks began trading from Marlie Farm two months later with then 22-year-old Stuart Winter and his brother Nathan, 25, named as company bosses.
After the new firm had been in business for seven months, Martin and Nathan Winter were sent to prison for seven and five years respectively.
Nathan resigned as a director of Wizard Fireworks one month after the sentencing, leaving Stuart as sole director.
Since then the company has expanded, supplying fireworks through its website and to bonfire societies across the county.
In 2009, Martin and Nathan Winter were found guilty of gross negligence and manslaughter after a five-week trial at Lewes Crown Court.
Martin and Nathan Winter outside Lewes Crown Court during the trial
Investigators found the firework-packed metal container which exploded in 2006 had been unlicensed for storage.
Jurors were told it had been obvious to both men of the potential for a huge blast if a blaze broke out.
Their firm was convicted of two counts of health and safety breaches after the explosion, which injured 20 others, mainly police and fire officers, and was fined £30,000.
The judge, Mr Justice Cooke, described Martin Winter as “reckless” in the handling and storage of fireworks and failing to give full and accurate information.
He told the father and son in the dock: “You had deliberately placed fireworks capable of causing mass explosion knowing that you didn't have the authorisation.
“You deliberately flouted the explosives regulations for profits. No doubt familiarity bred contempt.”
A loud bang then a massive fireball
When Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge were called to a fire at Marlie Farm six years ago, they had no idea they were heading to their deaths.
It was while Nathan Winter was making preparations at Marlie Farm for a fireworks show in Eastbourne later on December 3, 2006, that the fatal sequence of events was triggered.
The 22-year-old heard a crack as igniters flared up. Soon fireworks were exploding and firing off in all directions.
Frantically, Nathan told his brother Stuart to call the emergency services. Within minutes, scores of firefighters from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service arrived to battle the blaze – including Mr Wicker and Mr Wembridge.
One firefighter, Michael Sweetman, described how, moments before the blast, he heard a hissing sound followed by a sucking sound coming from the container.
Then there was a loud bang, followed by a massive fireball which shot out about 10ft. This was followed by a huge explosion as the container exploded like a bomb and rocked the site, sending lethal fragments flying towards the helpless firemen.
Dramatic video footage captured by Mr Wembridge showed fireworks exploding and flames engulfing different parts of the site – before the film suddenly went dead.
See the latest news headlines from The Argus:
- More workers using their bicycles to get to the office after challenge
- Powerful addition to offshore wind farm
- Brave Second World War hero dies at age of 93
- Health expert to study Indian street dogs
- Every bus in the fleet fitted with free wi-fi to help passengers stay connected