ONE of the organisers of a bonfire night event on the evening of one of the worst British motorway pile-ups in living memory thought the fireworks may have distracted motorists, an inquest heard today.
Seven people died and 51 were injured during a series of crashes between 34 vehicles on the southbound carriageway of the M5, near Taunton, Somerset on the evening of November 4 2011.
Motorists entered a wall of thick fog - described by some as a "white curtain" or "emulsion" - and were unable to prevent multiple collisions.
Grandparents Anthony, 73, and Pamela Adams,70, from Newport; father and daughter Michael, 67, and Maggie Barton, 30, from Windsor, Berkshire; battle re-enactor Malcolm Beacham, 46, from Woolavington, Somerset; and lorry drivers Terry Brice, 55, from South Gloucestershire, and Kye Thomas, 38, from Cornwall all died.
The disaster happened at 8.20pm - five minutes after a £3,000 fireworks display had finished just 200ft away at Taunton rugby club.
Members of the club told the inquest, which has been resumed by West Somerset coroner Michael Rose, that the event was planned as a fundraiser.
They said they hired 51-year-old firework contractor Geoffrey Counsell - cleared at Bristol Crown Court of breaching health and safety laws on the night of the accident - to operate the display.
Michael Taylor, a club committee member, said that after the display finished he could hear the unfolding disaster on the nearby M5.
"I could hear explosions coming from the direction of the motorway but we didn't really know what was happening," he said in a written statement.
Mr Taylor said that when news began filtering through of the accident, club chairman Pete Stone called a committee meeting.
"There were concerns that the fireworks may have distracted motorists as clearly there had been a massive accident," Mr Taylor said.
Colin Bentley, who was in charge of marketing the event, said when he saw the flames from the accident, he initially thought it was a tree set on fire by a firework.
"My initial thought when I saw the tree on fire was that the fireworks caused it. I felt relieved about it not being a tree," he said in a written statement.
"I never in my wildest dreams realised what was happening on the motorway. I now feel guilty for being relieved."
Mr Bentley, who has a background in sports marketing, told how he had a meeting with Mr Counsell the month before the display.
"I had a lot riding on the event as it was the first event for the club I was marketing," he said.
Mr Bentley said that Mr Counsell told him there would not be a problem with the proximity to the M5.
"I was really impressed with Geoff. He told that he always completed a risk assessment," he said.
"It was an excellent display and I thought I could use Geoff for future events and he would be a good contact."
The day after the disaster he said he was contacted by a member of the club asking for copies of the risk assessment documents but he could not find them.
"I was now aware that the horrific accident had occurred. I could not find the documents and I then typed up a risk assessment from the notes that I had made at the time."
Mr Bentley added: "I do not believe Geoff had done anything wrong."
Club general manager Stephen Sanger-Davies told the inquest at Shire Hall in Taunton that he personally did not see any risk assessment documents but added that Mr Bentley was liaising with Mr Counsell.
"We wanted to establish that public liability insurance was held by Mr Counsell and that risk assessments were in place," he added.
Mr Sanger-Davies said he had spoken to Adrian Gridley, Avon and Somerset Police's events planning officer, a month before Bonfire Night.
"He was already aware of the layout of the rugby club and I understand that he had attended on a number of occasions," he said.
"His only concern was if there was a strong wind towards the motorway then we should move the fireworks further away.
"He seemed quite affable about the event taking place."
Mr Sanger-Davies added that Taunton Deane Borough Council had sent him a three page leaflet about dealing with fireworks.
Mr Sanger-Davies said that due to the proximity of the rugby club to the motorway and the railway line he wanted the agencies responsible for them to be aware of the event.
He said: "It's only sensible and prudent to tell those bodies responsible for them. My personal concern was that if we were doing anything out of the ordinary we should ask those that could be affected.
"If we asked the police and they had no concerns about holding the fireworks event, why should we have any concerns?"
He said that the risk assessment for the event was three-fold - a combination of the club's own matchday risk assessment, Mr Counsell's risk assessment and observations of Mr Bentley.
Tom Leeper, a barrister representing the family of Mr Brice, showed Mr Sanger-Davies a copy of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication, called Working together on firework displays: A guide to safety for firework display organisers and operators.
The witness said that until today he had never seen it and added: "I am not seeking to blame anybody but if all these experts had this document why has no-one ever given us it?"
Lee Whaddon, the club's director of rugby, said that on matchdays there would be between 1,000 and 2,000 spectators and the club had policies in place to manage that.
"The only difference between the evening of November 4 2011 and a Saturday afternoon was that people were there to watch fireworks and not a game of rugby," he said.
Mr Whaddon was also asked about the HSE document on fireworks displays.
He said: "We went to the police and asked for advice; we went to the local authority and asked for advice. They told us we were fully compliant with what we needed to do.
"Nobody has told us about this document until today."
Mr Whaddon said that after the display he received a phone call from Mr Bentley saying: "Lee, come quick, the stand's on fire."
"I dropped the handful of leaflets I had and ran towards the stand. I looked towards the Les Phippen Memorial Stand and I could see a glow.
"I thought it might be a vehicle on fire and then I started to hear explosions and see flames, which were as high as the matrix signs over the motorway."
Mr Whaddon added: "This was a fully professional, thought out event. We had fire marshals, first aid tents and we had a sparkler zone for the children."
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.