@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Pedrogao Grande Fire 4 Years Ago: 11 on Trial Now
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Most of the deaths occurred on National Road 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera to Figueiró dos Vinhos. (Photo by Guillermo Martinez/Reuters)
The rumble of thunder the past few days has triggered memories of the Pedrogao Grande wildfire, the country’s deadliest fire.
In the immediate aftermath, some blamed the fire on “dry lightning”. There had been thunder and lightning but no rain in an already extremely dry year. However, a team of experts from the University of Coimbra’s Faculty of Sciences and Technology (Department of Mechanical Engineering) disputed this theory, according to Portugal News (October 16, 2017), in a report delivered to the Ministry of Internal Administration, ironically, four months later and on the day after the second deadliest fire broke out in and around Oliveira do Hospital.
Forest fire specialist Domingos Xavier Viegas laid the blame on medium-tension electricity cables coming into contact with vegetation, which firefighters official, Jaime Marta Soares, had suggested repeatedly, reported Portugal News.
The report said: “We lean strongly towards the start of the fire having been caused by the medium-tension electricity cable. The situation suggests, in our opinion, deficient management of combustible material within the protected stretch of the line by the entity in charge.”
Almost four years after the Pedrogao Grande fire (June 17, 2017), after an indictment by the Public Ministry, an investigation phase and appeals to higher courts, 11 defendants are on trial to determine responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 accounted for by the Public Ministry, reported Diario de Noticias (May 24). A total of 66 people lost their lives and 253 were wounded, according to Correio da Manha (June 17). The trial began on May 24 in the Tribunal of Leiria.
The 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; 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; two EDP 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).
They all face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias.
The defendants are the commander of the Pedrogao Grande Fire Brigade, Augusto Arnaut, then responsible for relief operations (63 counts of homicide); EDP employees, Jose Geria (63 counts of homicide) and Casimiro Pedro (63 counts of homicide); Ascendi employees, Jose Reves (34 counts of homicide), Ugo Berardinelli (34 counts of homicide) and Rogerio Mota (34 counts of homicide); and the former president of Castanheira de Pera municipality, Fernando Lopes (10 counts of homicide), according to SIC Noticias (May 24).
The presidents of Pedrogao Grande municipality, Valdemar Alves (7 counts of homicide), and of Figueiro dos Vinhos, Jorge Abreu (2 counts of homicide), also are accused.
The former vice president of the Pedrogao Grande municipality, Jose Graça (7 counts of homicide) and the former head of the Forestry Office of the municipality of Pedrogao Grande, Margarida Gonçalves (7 counts of homicide), are also among the defendants, according to SIC Noticias (May 24).
On the first day of the trial, a lawyer representing some of the victims’ relatives said that the objective of the trial was not “revenge”, but rather to ensure that “catastrophes of this nature do not happen again” and also “mourning”, reported Observador.
The lawyer for the EDP defendants, Rui Patricio, disagreed:
“Trials are not meant to mourn” but rather “to ascertain facts” and “concrete responsibility”.
Attorney Filomena Girao, who represents the commander of Pedrogao Grande’s volunteer firefighters, Augusto Arnaut, asked that there not be “sacrificing this man”, who she says the prosecution has turned into a “scapegoat”.
“On that tragic day, the means were few to fight that fight which, we now know, was impossible,” said Girao, who added that Arnaut could not “have done more and better”.
Of the 11 defendants, only four – the three Ascendi employees and the president of Figueiro dos Vinhos municipality – said they wanted to speak in court, reported Observador.
The Pedrogao Grande firefighter commander expressed a willingness to speak but backed down. Augusto Arnaut began by saying that “it has been very difficult to be in this process.” The judge reminded him that he should speak about the facts, which caused him to retreat. “
Outside, to journalists, he said what he could not say inside: that June 17, 2017 “will last” for the rest of his life. “I did my best. All the firefighters who were with me gave their best”, rejecting any responsibility for the tragic outcome of the fire, according to Observador.