Was cannabis to blame for death of buried-alive Immingham Docks worker?
A DOCK WORKER was buried alive by an avalanche of coal – but an inquest heard how the accident could have been caused by high levels of cannabis in his body.
Timothy Mark Elton, 28, was unable to breathe after being buried while working on the MV Excalibur at Immingham Docks, a jury heard during an inquest at Cleethorpes Town Hall.
Consultant pathologist Dr Patricia Parsons said a post mortem examination revealed he had been killed by asphyxiation on January 27 last year – adding that the accident could have been caused by the high levels of cannabis found in his body.
She explained it may have affected his cognitive and motor functional skills, in other words, movement and his ability to make rational decisions.
A statement read in court from chemical pathologist Dr Davison said that the high levels suggested father-of-two Mr Elton had smoked cannabis within an hour of the incident.
The inquest was also told that superiors spotted him in "a dangerous position" – yet ordered machinery work to continue.
Gordon Exall, representing Mr Elton's family, argued that it "would have been sensible" for the superiors to have stopped the crane – which witnesses claimed caused the avalanche.
Mr Elton had been working with friend and colleague Gordon Burns as a trimmer for an agency, preparing the hold to be unloaded by a crane and grab.
Fiancee Emma Everitt told coroner Paul Kelly that he kissed her goodbye before leaving their home in Oakham Walk, Immingham, with Mr Burns, who he often shared a taxi to work with.
The pair spent the morning working in a number of the ship's seven holds before breaking for lunch and returning to work in hold one, at the front of the ship, in the afternoon.
Mr Burns told the inquest that the foreman asked them to clear the ladders into the hold so they could prepare for a 360-degree digger to be delivered by the crane, which would move the coal so it was accessible to the grab.
Grimsby and Immingham Stevedoors hatchman Michael Graham Smith – whose job it is to direct the crane – told the inquest he watched the pair coming down into the hold from a ladder platform underneath them.
Mr Elton had been clearing coal from the ladder shortly before the avalanche, and suggested he should jump down to the bottom of the coal pile to prepare for a digger to be delivered into the hold.
Mr Smith claimed he specifically told him not to, yet moments later he jumped 10-12 metres to the bottom of the slope of coal – although Mr Exall disputed this, claiming he could easily have slipped and pointing out that Mr Smith didn't mention the conversation when initially questioned by the coroner.
When Mr Elton landed at the bottom of the pile, Mr Smith told the inquest he immediately contacted the crane driver, Andrew Ridlington, to stop – as the grab was about to come down directly on him.
Mr Smith said he then directed the crane to pick up coal from a different area, saying it was not uncommon for cranes to be working while trimmers were in the hold.
However, an avalanche of coal then fell on Mr Elton, which Mr Burns claimed was caused by the grab hitting the coal load in a different area, making "the whole ship vibrate".
Associated British Ports (ABP) crane driver Mr Ridlington told the inquest he spotted Mr Elton in the hold and stopped the crane immediately until he was told by Mr Smith to recommence in a different area.
He agreed with Toby Riley-Smith, representing ABP, that his instinct was to stop working but he relied on the judgement of hatchman Mr Smith as his "eyes and ears on the ground" – who directed him to continue working.
Richard Revill, who trains staff at the port, said that Mr Smith was "a very good hatchman" but agreed with Mr Exall's suggestion that it would have been "sensible" to stop working in the hold while Mr Elton was in "a dangerous position".
He also admitted that the port had been issued a notice to improve by the Health and Safety Executive since the accident, and trimmers now wear safety lines.
Mr Burns, who claimed to have spent the whole day with Mr Elton, said that they left the ship between 11.30am and 12.30pm to get food but said they did not take cannabis.
However, he later admitted to having since been dismissed by the agency he worked for with Mr Elton because of drug use, after being pressed by Neil Cameron, representing Grimsby and Immingham Stevedores.
Miss Everitt, Mr Elton's partner of 10 years, was "shocked" to discover he was still using cannabis after giving him an ultimatum at Christmas 2008 and believing him to have stopped.
She also said she had talked to her partner at 12.47pm that day – less than an hour before the accident – and he told her he was looking forward to "a fun-filled weekend with the kids".
Miss Everitt learned of her fiance's death when someone phoned their house that day, asking when the funeral was.
"I went into panic mode but didn't find out officially until policemen came to my house at about 5pm," she added.
The inquest will continue tomorrow when the jury hears from Carol Downes MBE, Health and Safety Executive inspector, before considering a verdict.