A Tasmanian coroner has described the death of two sisters in a shed fire in 2017 as an “indescribable, but avoidable tragedy”.
- A Tasmanian coroner has handed down his findings into the deaths of Ruby and Shanzel Brewer
- The sisters died after the shed they were sleeping in caught fire
- Coroner Simon Cooper said the most likely cause was an electrical fault
Ruby Brewer and her sister Shanzel were just 13 and 11 years old when the shed they were sleeping in caught fire and burnt to the ground.
At the time of their deaths, the girls were living on a 3.1-hectare rural block in Turners Marsh, north of Launceston.
The block of land was owned by Kristy Seymour, who had built the shed in 2009 with her then-partner Shaun Holden. They did not have a council planning or building permit.
In his report, coroner Simon Cooper noted that at the time it was built, Ms Seymour was “operating the property as some type of foster home”.
He said it was evident that Child and Family Services was aware that children placed under her care would be living in a shed, and had “actively encouraged the construction of the shed and provided financial assistance” with building costs.
The 6 x 6-metre galvanised shed was lined with pine panelling and separated into two bedrooms and a lounge-type area. It had no water or plumbing and had only one entrance.
Concerns over electrical work
The electrical works were done by Bryan Pike, a man who, at the time, “did not hold the necessary licence to perform electrical work of the type carried out” at the property,” Magistrate Cooper said.
In 2013, he was investigated by a regulator for performing unlicensed electrical work and was cautioned. He would later refuse to cooperate with the coronial investigation.
In December 2015, Clifford Brewer moved into the property, unofficially leasing it from Ms Seymour, with his partner, the three children they shared, an 18-year-old family friend and Ruby and Shanzel his daughters from a previous relationship.
Ruby and Shanzel had been living in the shed for a year. Ruby slept in the front room, Shanzel in the rear. The rest of the family were sleeping in the main house.
On the evening of Saturday, June 10, 2017, the girls ate their evening meal in the main house before eventually returning to the shed to go bed.
Neither girl was seen alive again.
Ruby and Shanzel Brewer died after the shed they were sleeping in caught fire in June 2017.(ABC News: Carla Howarth)
Just after 2:30am, a neighbour called emergency services to report what he thought was a bushfire.
It would take almost another hour for fire crews to arrive on the scene.
By that time, the shed had burnt to the ground and both girls were dead.
While Magistrate Cooper described the response time as “poor”, he said that the evidence did not suggest an earlier arrival would have altered the outcome.
When the girls’ bodies were recovered, they were so badly burnt that they had to be identified using a combination of DNA analysis and forensic dental examination.
A forensic pathologist concluded that both girls died as a result of asphyxia due to smoke inhalation.
The fire investigation concluded that the fire was caused by either an electrical fault, which caused the combustible materials in the shed to ignite, or from the introduction of a mobile ignition source, such as a candle.
There was no evidence that a smoke detector or detectors had been installed in the shed. During the inquest, Mr Brewer suggested that the fitting of smoke detectors was the responsibility of the property owner.
Tributes at Ruby and Shanzel Brewer’s funeral.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)
Defects indicated ‘dangerous standard’ of electrical work
Magistrate Cooper said a further investigation of the electrical works was unable to determine the cause, however, a number of defects were found.
“They are, to my mind, indicative of the dangerous standard of the electrical work at the property,” he wrote.
“It is evident that the most likely source of the fire, which incinerated Ruby and Shanzel, was electrical.”
The coronial investigation revealed that Mr Brewer and his family had had ongoing issues with the electrical supply at the property.
Various people including the landowner’s son, her boyfriend, and Mr Brewer took a “look at the problem”. None of them had any electrical qualifications.
When Ms Seymour sent a qualified electrician to look at the main home in May 2017, about a month before the girls’ death, the coroner’s report said Mr Brewer declined his offer to look at the shed.
Magistrate Cooper concluded his inquest by saying the girls’ deaths were avoidable.
“Their deaths may well have been avoided if cheap and easily available smoke detectors had been installed in the shed in which they were sleeping,” he wrote.
“Coroners, fire authorities and safety experts have repeatedly warned about the need for properly operating smoke detectors to be installed in homes.
“I recommend that every home occupier install and maintain properly operating smoke detectors, especially in rooms where people are sleeping.”
Fire crews at the scene of the fatal fire in Turners Marsh in June 2017.(ABC News)
He also said it was “quite clear that the electrical work at the property was dangerous”.
“The ultimate responsibility for this rests with Ms Seymour,” Magistrate Cooper wrote.
“It is also quite clear that Mr Brewer had attempted to do electrical work himself and declined the assistance of a qualified electrician.
“I comment that no-one should ever carry out electrical work of any kind unless they are properly qualified and licensed to do so.”
As no-one was able to determine the actual source of the electrical fire, Mr Cooper made no finding identifying any person as being responsible for the deaths of Ruby and Shanzel.