Anatomy of arson

The Belgrave House Hotel was fully booked at the height of tourist season when, for unknown reasons, Damion Harris, 31, stumbled into the building after a night out and set it on fire.

The July 2018 blaze destroyed the hotel, killing one guest and seriously injuring another.

The prosecution described Harris as “heavily intoxicated,” with CCTV showing him staggering around the building during the early hours of the morning.

He had snuck into the hotel while walking back along the town‘s Victorian promenade at about 02:00 BST after spending the night drinking.

The doors of the hotel, which was unstaffed overnight, had been left unlocked for any returning guests.

CCTV footage showing much of what happened before the building was engulfed in flames was recovered by investigators, having survived the heat of the fire locked in a steel container.

In the footage, played in court, Harris was first seen wedging the front door open with a plant pot and hiding a fire extinguisher.

Harris was then seen attempting to remove pictures from the wall and gain access to a locked display cabinet before setting light to the curtains and a linen cupboard.

The blaze that followed killed one guest, while another fell 11m (35ft) from the building‘s roof in front of his young children.

Soon after he was arrested, Harris admitted to police he had been the one to start the fire, but maintained until the opening day of his trial that he had been acting under the instructions of another man, who he had met outside the hotel moments before.

During police interviews he said this man had threatened to burn down his own house, with his family inside, if he failed to start the fire.

‘Entirely responsible‘

But on Monday he admitted manslaughter, arson and inflicting grievous bodily harm.

The prosecution said Harris was “entirely responsible” for setting the blaze, and argued that his story about being threatened showed he was entirely aware of the potentially deadly consequences of fire.

The fire at the Belgrave House Hotel trapped guests to the building‘s upper floors, blocking their escape through the hotel‘s front entrance.

Some were forced to jump from balconies to escape the rising flames, while others fled to the roof.

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Juozas Tunaitis, 48, a fire safety contractor, was last seen by his friends peering out of his window on the second floor while the fire raged.

His remains were recovered by a forensic team almost two months after the fire in July, but were so badly damaged it took until November to identify them using DNA technology.

‘Hold hands‘

Richard Simnett, 42, was on holiday with his partner, Caroline Latham and their two young boys, aged four and five, when they woke to the sound of the hotel‘s fire alarms.

Realising the fire was blocking their escape, the parents covered their children in wet towels and lifted them out of their third floor window and onto the slopping roof above.

In a 999 call played in court, Ms Latham could be heard yelling to the children to “hold hands” and “stay together”.

Once on the roof, the court heard Mr Simnett lost his footing and fell backwards several stories, while his partner told their young boys to begin reciting their times tables in an effort to distract them from what was happening.

Ms Latham said she had no way of knowing whether her husband “was still alive or not,” but instead concentrated on her sons, who she could no longer see through the thick smoke.

Fortunately, Mr Simnett survived the fall, hitting a handrail part of the way down towards the courtyard below, before getting back to his feet to check on his family.

But the court heard he had suffered severe injuries, which left him in intensive care.

He described the pain as “unbearable” and said he was no longer able to “pick up his children and squeeze them” as a result.

Mr Simnett said he was “angry” when he found out the fire had been started intentionally because it put his children‘s lives at risk.

Ms Latham, who was rescued with their children by firefighters using a “cherry picker” aerial platform, said the blaze had “destroyed” their lives.

Judge Paul Thomas, sentencing at Swansea Crown Court, said Harris had entered the hotel for a “malicious purpose.”

“You set not one but two separate fires,” he told him.

“Having set those fires you then deliberately removed a fire extinguisher. That, Mr Harris, was a wicked thing to do.”

Harris was jailed for 16 years and will serve a further five years on license.

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