THE families of victims and those injured in a huge explosion at a fireworks factory a decade ago have finally received their compensation payments, The Argus can reveal.

The families of firefighters Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge killed in the Marlie Farm blaze in December 3, 2006, and seven other emergency services personnel injured have received payments with the tenth anniversary passing last weekend.

The compensation totalling £510,000 was delayed by East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s refusal to accept liability for the deaths of its servicemen - prompted by the instructions of their insurers Zurich.

The Fire Brigades Union has claimed the delay in payouts has stopped victims and grieving families from moving on from the tragic incident and have called for the service to make a public apology.

East Sussex fire bosses said the service had wanted to see the legal battle resolved as soon as possible and had been taking steps to avoid any repeat of the tragic day a decade ago.

A huge blaze broke out at the headquarters of Festival Fireworks in Shortgate near Uckfield at around 2pm on December 3, 2006.

As well as claiming the lives of the two firefighters, 12 other emergency services personnel were injured and £824,000 worth of fire service vehicles were destroyed.

In December 2009 Lewes Crown Court found two Festival Fireworks directors guilty of manslaughter with Martin Winter receiving a seven-year jail term and his son Nathan sent to prison for five-years.

The High Court ruled more than three years ago that the deaths were preventable and the families were entitled to compensation but fire service legal appeals delayed the process for a further two years.

Danni Armstrong, South East executive council member for the FBU, said: “It’s a shame it took ten years to sort out compensation payments due to East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service not accepting any blame for the events on that day.

“The right thing for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service would be to apologise to our members, members of the public, and the families of those who were lost to allow us all to move forward.”

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said flowers were sent to Heathfield and Crowborough Community Fire Stations to be laid at memorials to the firefighters while flowers were also laid at the service’s Eastbourne headquarters to mark the tenth anniversary on Saturday.

Fire chief Gary Walsh said: “We previously expressed our desire to see the legal action surrounding the issue of compensation resolved as soon as possible.

“We have carried out our own investigation and brought in changes to the way we deal with these sorts of fires.

“Since this tragic incident, the service has delivered improvements in our operational procedures and assisted other fire and rescue services to understand the lessons learnt from this incident ten years ago.”


THE Marlie Farm fire caused devastation to buildings but even greater and longer-lasting devastation has been wreaked upon the families who lost their loved ones.

A fire broke out at the headquarters of Festival Fireworks UK in Shortgate as company director Nathan Winter prepared fireworks for Eastbourne’s Christmas lights ceremony.

Within the hour a fireball erupted in a huge explosion heard five miles away in Uckfield, claiming the lives of firefighters Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge and injuring 13 other emergency services personnel. Nearby houses suffered massive damage requiring major reconstruction work and dozens of cars were written off, while East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service were left with a bill for £824,000, having lost 12 fire engines, nine cars and vans as well as other equipment to the heat from the fire.

A few months later, Festival Fireworks director Martin Winter compounded the heartache and anger by branding the heroic firefighters who lost their lives “idiots”. Within a year, the company were back trading again after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) lifted a ban and plans to rebuild the fireworks factory were approved by Lewes District Council.

In February 2008 Martin Winter, 50, and his son Nathan, 23, were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and charged four months later.

The renamed Alpha Fireworks suffered a blow later in the year after being told it was no longer allowed to store fireworks at Marlie Farm though it could sell fireworks from a shop on site. In December 2009, Lewes Crown Court found the Winters guilty of manslaughter, with Martin receiving a seven-year jail term and Nathan five years.

Eighteen months later, widows Heather Wickes and Lesley Wembridge, along with 12 injured firefighters and police officers, were told by a High Court judge they could seek compensation from both Martin Winter and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.

Days later, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service admitted a catalogue of failings and published 66 recommendations for improvements in safety, specialist training, sharing of key information and changes to the law surrounding fireworks.

In October 2013, a legal challenge by the fire service’s insurers Zurich to prevent the compensation payouts failed but it was only last year that the legal opposition was completely dropped., allowing families to finally receive their £510,000 compensation.