This week’s blog is a guest blog from Councillor Jean Stretton, who led Oldham Council’s response to the Shaw gas explosion on June 26 last year.
TODAY marks the one year anniversary of the shocking explosion that killed little Jamie Heaton in Shaw.
That morning I remember taking a phone call from Jim McMahon, Council Leader.
He was at the Local Government Association Conference in Birmingham and called to ask me to get to Buckley Street in Shaw quickly because there had been an unexplained explosion.
Details at that stage were scarce, but my heart sank as Jim told me the blast had destroyed three houses and that reports were suggesting that a child was trapped in one of the properties, and an adult in another.
I had no idea what to expect as I drove to Shaw.
When I arrived a large area of terraced streets was already cordoned off.
Some of the residents had been taken to an initial rest centre set up at Crompton House school. Others stayed at the cordon hoping for news of their homes, which were out of sight from where we stood.
I have to say that – despite being in the middle of an Ofsted inspection – the response from that school community was fantastic as staff, volunteers and local firms all began pitching in to support the people affected.
I overheard a fire service officer who had actually been close to the blast site being interviewed and he likened it to the site of the Manchester bomb.
Later that evening Jim McMahon and I were escorted around the site. We were greeted by a scene of utter devastation: deserted and eerie. The only sounds were of glass crunching under our feet. It was only then that the sheer scale of the blast became apparent.
As the day drew on it was confirmed that two-year-old Jamie had tragically lost his life in the blast.
There are simply no words to convey the effect of that news on all concerned, nor the anger that people felt as the puzzle of what had actually happened slowly unraveled thanks to a painstaking police investigation which took weeks.
The perpetrator, we now know, was the man trapped in another house. Andrew Partington was convicted of manslaughter in February this year and sentenced to ten years in jail.
He had cut through gas pipes and let his property fill will fumes overnight. The following morning he lit a cigarette, igniting the gas and causing an explosion.
When I think back now – one year on – and reflect on that day’s events what stands out most is the community response.
After the initial shock and sympathies our thoughts had to turn to what needed to be done to help people.
Residents began arriving at the rest centre with clothes and food and items that could in some way help people to set up home again. A small child came with her parents because she wanted to give some of her toys to the children who had lost all of theirs.
During the first few weeks after the explosion I was regularly in Shaw as the recovery phase got underway.
The vast majority said they felt lucky to be alive and we had to move fast to ensure they all got temporary accommodation, either with housing associations or with friends and family.
I met people who were distressed and frustrated about not being able to get back to their homes. I met people angry or worried about pets that were still inside the cordon.
In the days and weeks that followed council staff, partners and volunteers did their level best to support people and to get them the very latest information as the investigation – and unsafe condition of many buildings – made progress slow.
Many of those people affected were eventually able to return to their homes after the police work finished, but other properties suffered considerable damage and needed significant repair.
We knew that many residents would suffer serious financial hardship as a result of the blast. We set up the Distress Fund which, to date, has committed about £243,000 to affected residents.
Thanks to donations of £100,000 from Oldham Council, £125,000 from the charity Forever Manchester, individual donations and dozens of fundraising events held by residents and groups across the Borough, a safety net was put in place that has now helped 91 local families.
In the first few weeks we met daily. Throughout all the Distress Fund’s work and deliberations, I must pay tribute to the support that was given at all times by the Shaw ward councillors. I feel that we have worked well together to make these meetings effective, putting people first and acting consistently and fairly in each case.
We removed security from the blast site in March this year, leaving only robust fencing around 1-13 Buckley Street.
Repairs to some homes are still underway and, whilst we have no direct control over this, we try to use what influence we have to encourage an approach that minimises disruption to other residents.
The latest updates on properties, and the background to all Oldham Council’s work in the aftermath of the blast, can be read here.
I am very proud of the work our staff and all the partner organisations undertook in Shaw, and we also learned some important lessons for future emergency response situations.
Above all I am proud of the incredible spirit shown by the people of Shaw in rebuilding their community and their lives.
Today, of course, our thoughts must simply focus on the memory of little Jamie, whose life was so cruelly taken away.
This will be an incredibly difficult time for his parents, Michelle and Kenny, and I know that no words I can say are likely to be of comfort to them.
I admire them for setting up their charity and wanting to do something to help others in response to the tragedy they have suffered.
The Jamie’s Something Special memorial fund aims to raise funds to buy some new play equipment for Bullcote Park, Heyside, where Jamie took his first steps. It is also raising money for children with special needs.
You can find out more – and donate – to the charity here.
No parent should ever have to bury their child – let alone in circumstances as devastating as this – and all our thoughts are with them today.