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Swain’s Lane inquest: Blast victim unaware that fuel tank held gas

Forensic scientist tells hearing that it was impossible to tell whether cannabis in Stephen Hampton's body impaired his ability to work

21 March, 2019 — By Tom Foot

A CONSTRUCTION worker died after a fuel tank he believed to be empty exploded, the opening day of an inquest has heard.

Stephen Hampton, 54, was helping to clear a former petrol filling station site in Swain’s Lane, Highgate, on March 16, 2017.

St Pancras Coroner’s Court heard yesterday (Wednesday) from a colleague that Mr Hampton was believed to have smoked at least one cannabis joint before he took a flame torch-cutter to a steel tank that had been unearthed from the site.

Unknown to him, the tank he was working on had three sections, with one compartment still containing gas, the inquest had earlier heard.

Detective Sergeant Martin Head said: “The flame of the cutter breached the cylinder. It ignited the gas inside. This resulted in a rapid expansion of the gas within the cylinder, a confined space. That expansion caused the panel to be forced off. That panel, disc in shape, connected with Mr Hampton, resulting in significant injuries, mainly to the right side. It also landed on top of him, further compounding his injuries.”

He added: “To give some context, the panel was 1.7 metres – and it is made of steel.”

Mr Hampton died at Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, two hours after the explosion. The construction work was part of the development of a former shopping parade. From around the 1950s, there had been a filling station at the site.

Three fuel containers had remained “in situ” despite the filling station being “decommissioned” in the 1980s, DS Head said. He compared the sound of the explosion to a shotgun being fired at close range.

Liquid found inside two other similar containers had been tested and found to be harmless water, the inquest heard. The coroner’s court was packed with lawyers representing companies, including landowner Swain’s Lane Ltd, contractor Mead Consulting and sub-contractors Mead Building Construction, Material Movement and PJ Labour.

The Met Police has not pursued any criminal charges against companies, but the Health and Safety Executive, which has the power to prosecute, is represented by a barrister at the inquest. Yesterday (Wednesday), the court heard that Mr Hampton’s blood had traces of THC, the chemical compound of cannabis.

But evidence from Sarah Morley, a forensic scientist, said that it was impossible to determine whether this had impaired Mr Hampton’s ability to work.

Her statement, read to the inquest, said that cannabis can induce a state of “heightened awareness and tranquility” but also “impaired-ness” and “changes in aural, visual and time conception”, while also affecting attention and “disordered thought processes”. She added: “It is not possible to determine the degree of impairment, if any, from blood THC level. This is because cannabinoids can accumulate in the body of regular users, and tolerance can build up.”

Guy Hutchins, who worked on the site with Mr Hampton and rang 999, was asked by coroner Mary Hassell: “Was it one joint in the morning, and one at lunchtime?”

He told the inquest: “I can only assume so… I knew he was going for a joint in the morning. I didn’t know if he had two or three but I assume it was one. I assume he was having a joint because he told me he was having a joint. He did it every day. Normally he would sit in his van.” He added: “All I can say is that he seemed the same as he always was on a day-to-day basis.”

The inquest is due to continue until the end of next week.

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