@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Pedrogao Fire: All 11 Defendants Acquitted
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
Commander Augusto Arnaut (left) of the Pedrogao Grande Volunteer Firefighters arriving at the Tribunal Court of Leiria
A panel of judges acquitted the 11 defendants who were accused of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm in the Pedrogao Grande fire, the deadliest in the history of Portugal, based on the presented evidence and the testimony of more than 200 witnesses, reported Expresso (September 13).
Five years after the fire and 15 months after the trial began to determine possible criminal liability in the deaths of 63 and injuries of 44, Augusto Arnaut, Commander of Pedrogao Grande Volunteer Firefighters, was one of the 11 acquitted on September 13.
“The judges who make up this collective court agree to judge the pronunciation, the accusation and the private accusations totally unfounded and unproven, and to acquit the defendants of the practice of all crimes,” said Maria Clara Santos, the president of the judges’ panel, in reading the judgement at the Tribunal Court of Leiria, according to Diario de Noticias (September 13).
In addition, the court ruled as completely unfounded the claims for civil damages against the defendants.
Three judges, the president and two judicial magistrates comprised the panel, who began reading the 210-page judgement in the morning and ended five and a half hours later.
The Pedrogao Grande fire started with electrical discharges in the Lousa-Pedrogao medium-voltage line, whose maintenance was the responsibility of the former EDP Distribuçao (Energias de Portugal), currently E-REDES, and the national road, 236-1, where 47 deaths were recorded, was under concession to Ascendi, reported Expresso.
Deaths and injuries in the June 17, 2017 fire were not proven to be the result of the actions or omissions of the defendants, according to the judicial court’s press release, reported Diairio de Noticias (September 13)..
The court found that the trial proved that, at the time of the fires, “the municipality of Pedrogao Grande was a territory with 72 percent of its area occupied by a dense continuous forest patch, essentially constituted by stands of maritime pine, eucalyptus and acacia, with high fuel load and highly flammable”.
“Resulting from the combustion of a high charge of combustible and very flammable material, and the meeting of fire fronts, there was the consequent creation of a convective column/convective ‘outflow’, with increased projections and increased propagation speed of fire and formation of wind tornadoes and fire tornadoes,” said the press release.
According to the court, “between 20:00 and 20:20 on June 17, 2017, in the area of Estrada Nacional (EN) 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera to Figueiro dos Vinhos, there was a collapse of the described convective column of the fire/downburst, which fell vertically towards the ground, from a height of about 13 kilometers, which resulted in a rain of projections and generated wind of great intensity that, carrying particles of fire and incandescence, after hitting the ground, blew radially in all directions, with speeds of the order of 100 to 130 kilometers/hour.”
This scenario presented “values of fire intensity (radiation) of the order of 60,000 kilovolts/meter, in addition to the flame length of up to 80 meters, with temperatures of the order of 900 to 1,200 degrees Celsius, and dense smoke that nullified visibility.”
The downburst phenomenon occurs when high-intensity wind moves vertically towards the ground and, after reaching it, blows radially in all directions.
“It was proved that most of the deaths verified, namely on EN 236-1, and the physical injuries suffered were a direct consequence of the convective ‘outflow’ and/or the ‘downburst’ verified, according to the court’s press release.
The court clarified that “the formation and subsequent fall of the convective column/downburst described above is an extreme, rare and unpredictable pyro-meteorological phenomenon, and it was the first time that there was a record of the occurrence of such a phenomenon in Portugal and throughout the European continent."
Upon leaving the courthouse, Commander Augusto Arnaut was met with nearly one minute of applause from an honor guard of firefighters and commanders from around the country standing in two straight lines. Commander Arnaut walked down the middle. When he reached the end, he turned around and saluted his supporters. Many believed that the Pedrogao Grande fire commander was a scapegoat and that his conviction could begin a trend of blaming firefighters for casualties and inability to control all fires.
In front of the courthouse, Antonio Nunes, president of the Portuguese Firefighters League once again defended the creation of a National Fire Command. He said that he was happy with the outcome of the trial, regretting, however, “the tragedy that befell the victims and their families”, reported SIC Noticias (September 13).
“It was not Commander Antonio Arnaut who failed. Everyone knows that it was the system that failed,” said the president of the firefighters league.
Antonio Nunes pointed “the blame” to “others who should have been there (as defendants) and who were not”, referring to “those who did not provide the necessary means and communications”. He informed journalists that the league will award Commander Arnaut the “Fenix de Honra” at a meeting scheduled for September 24.
Also, outside the courthouse, Filomena Girao, Arnaut’s attorney, said that she regretted the wear and tear that the prosecution brought to the commander over these five years. Girao said that she would assess whether they would pursue a compensation claim. She said that she hoped that the prosecution would not appeal the court's decision to acquit the defendants.
In her closing arguments on May 31, reported Diario Guardiao (May 31) the defense attorney said:
“In the dock, I don’t see any of those responsible for the decisions that undermined fire prevention and firefighting. I don’t see any of the rulers who, with absolutely disastrous policies, got us here.
“I don’t see any of the decision-makers of the multiple plans for the revitalization of the interior that, until today, have not been implemented.
“I don’t see any of the real culprits responsible for the tragedy of Pedrogao.
“Instead of the MP’s (Public Ministry’s) request for condemnation, Commander Arnaut deserves our thanks. It is enough to look at the images of that day, which we all saw during the trial, for any citizen, consciously and responsibly, to be absolutely sure of that.
“The country has owed him that thanks for five years.”
Great Fire of October 2017
According to SAPO24 (July 24, 2021), Jose Carlos Alexandrino, then-president of the municipality of Oliveira do Hospital, called the legal proceedings the "trial of shame". Alexandrino, now a deputy (Partido Socialista) in the Assembly of the Republic, also questioned the lack of lawmakers in the group of defendants. He regretted wanting to judge people “as if it were possible to control this fire”.
In the Great Fire of October 2017, the second deadliest fire in Portugal, 97 percent of Oliveira do Hospital burned, and there were 13 recorded deaths. The total death toll hit 50 and an estimated 70 were injured, according to Visao (July 24, 2021).
However, the probe of the Great Fire has not even been filed, much less resulted in any indictments, according to a judicial source of Expresso (August 13, 2021).
The Public Ministry decided to combine the October 15, 2017 fires into a single mega-inquiry, which was centralized by the Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DIAP) and the Judicial Police.
Therefore, for example, the fires in Lousa, Oliveira do Hospital, Quiaios (Coimbra District), Serta (Castelo Branco District), Vouzela (Viseu District), Seia and Gouveia (Guarda District) have been investigated together yet do not share the same characteristics, which makes the investigation more complex and could explain the delay in completing the case, reported Expresso.
State Prosecution Asked for 10 Convictions
All the 11 defendants in the Pedrogao Grande fire trial faced charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 18).
In its closing arguments on May 18, the Public Ministry asked for the conviction of 10 of the 11 Pedrogao Grande fire defendants, according to Jornal de Noticias (May 18). It asked for the acquittal of the mayor of Figueiro dos Vinhos, Jorge Abreu (2 counts of negligent homicide).
Prosecutor Ana Mexia said that Jose Geria (63 counts of negligent homicide), one of the two employees of the former EDP Distribuçao (Energias de Portugal), currently E-REDES, should be “judged according to the evidence produced”.
The state prosecution asked for the imprisonment of more than five years for Fire Commander Augusto Arnaut (63 counts) as well as prison for Casimiro Pedro (63 counts), the other E-REDES employee, according to Diario de Noticias (May 18).
In the case of the three employees of the roads authority, Ascendi Pinhal Interior, Jose Reves, Ugo Berardinelli and Rogerio Mota, the prosecution requested a prison term of more than five years for 34 crimes of negligent homicide and seven of grievous bodily injury for not ensuring the cleaning of the fuel management lanes of the EN 236-1, known as the “road of death”.
In relation to Valdemar Alves (7 counts of negligent homicide), former mayor of Pedrogao Grande, Jose Graça (7 counts of negligent homicide), at the time a councilor, and Margarida Gonçalves (7 counts of negligent homicide)), then responsible for the forestry technical office, the Public Ministry asked for the three defendants to be sentenced to “a single penalty in a measure considered adequate” for six deaths, according to Jornal de Noticias.
(There was a separate trial of alleged irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the Pedrogao Grande fire. On January 31, Valdemar Alves was sentenced to seven years in prison. Alves appealed the sentence described as “inhumane” . . . and is equivalent to life imprisonment” which recalls the defendant’s age – 73 – and his state of health, reported Visao Verde (April 4).)
The prosecution said that Fernando Lopes (10 counts of negligent homicide), former mayor of Castanheira de Pera, should be given “a single sentence” for the deaths of four citizens, according to Jornal de Noticias (May 18).
After delivery of the verdict, Lopes, 63, told Lusa news agency that “he had a clear conscience” and “today, justice was done”, reported Expresso (September 13).
“Now, finally, I am going to live again, as this process interrupted my life,” said the former mayor, refusing to comment further.
The trial began on May 24, 2021.