@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Pedrogao Fire “Rotated” Suddenly
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Augusto Arnaut, the commander of Pedrogao Grande firefighters, is one of the 11 defendants. (Photo by Arturo Machado/Global Imagens)
A firefighter from Pedrogao Grande testified that the deadliest fire in Portugal was normal at first.
“We saw a fire that, at first, seemed normal with difficult access. We immediately tried to fight it . . . and the conditions changed,” Bruno Carvalho told a panel of judges at the Judicial Court of Leiria on January 24. Carvalho was in the first vehicle to arrive on the scene at Escalos Fundeiros, where the fire broke out, according to RTP Noticias (January 24).
The firefighter said that the June 2017 fire had “a very rapid progression”, insisting that it “looked normal” but “rotated completely, becoming very violent”.
“It turned 180 degrees to the opposite side, when we had to protect the population of Escalos," noting that he never hear or saw reinforcements. Carvalho stressed that there were several requests for help.
“Yes, additional vehicles were requested for the location. We listened to the communication via SIRESP (Portugal’s Integrated System of Emergency and Security Networks),” he answered when questioned by the public prosecutor, Ana Mexia.
When asked for the response, Carvalho said:
“Often silence, because there were communication problems at that time and, many times, there was no answer.”
There are 11 defendants in the trial at the Judicial Court of Leiria to determine responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the fire.
In answer to lawyers’ questions, the firefighter said that he did not know whether the commander of Pedrogao Grande firefighters, Augusto Arnaut, one of the defendants, gave the order to evacuate villages.
“That wouldn’t be our mission. We didn’t have the means to do it, at least not in my vehicle," he said, adding that the “increase in wind” was a complete surprise that caused the fire’s rotation.
Another Pedrogao Grande firefighter, David Simoes, who was also a passenger on the first vehicle, described a fire that “at first was calm” and “out of nowhere gained a very strong speed”, which he attributed to the change in winds and the increase in its intensity.
Another witness, an inspector from the Judiciary Police, linked the start of the fire in Escalos Fundeiros and Regadas to electrical discharges in the medium-voltage line, which was next to trees and other vegetation, admitting that these may have been caused by lightning.
Four firefighters from Figueiro dos Vinhos also testified to the panel. One of them said that he was in “the fire for about 29 hours”.
The trial began on May 24, 2021.
To shorten the legal proceedings, it was decided in December 2021 to have four weekly sessions with a panel of judges in 2022.
The first session was on January 12, reported Correio da Manha. Problems with the court’s sound system forced the judges to postpone, for about an hour, a session.
“After the extension to four weekly sessions was announced, the lawyers submitted an application to the Superior Council of the Judiciary calling for the decision to be revoked. They still haven’t had an answer,” according to Correio da Manha (January 12).
The 11 trial defendants are two current municipality presidents, one former municipality president and two council employees, who are accused of failing to clear the land along the roads; and Augusto Arnaut, the commander of the local fire station, who is accused of preventing the safeguarding villages and populations having omitted information that could have led to a cut in the road where 47 people died.
The other defendants are two EDP (Energias de Portugal) electricity firm employees, who are accused of not cleaning the strips along a medium-voltage line, which had an electrical discharge of unknown cause that set off the fire; and three members of roads authority Ascendi Pinhal Interior, who are accused of lack of road maintenance, according to Observador (May 24).
The defendants all face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 24).
(There is a separate trial of alleged irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the fire. A panel of judges is scheduled to resume hearing testimony on January 31, 2022. The housing trial began on October 26, 2020.)