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New Cross fire victim's cousin demands new enquiry

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: The scene of the fire in New Cross, 1981 (photo credit: PA)

A MIDLANDS man who survived London’s New Cross fire, which caused the deaths of 13 young people, is demanding a new investigation 36 years on from the tragedy which sent shockwaves through Britain’s black community in January 1981.

George Ruddock, now 53, is determined to gather 100,000 signatures to put pressure on Parliament for a public inquiry, while highlighting the fact that the exact cause of the fire has never been established. Despite lengthy police investigations no-one has ever been charged in relation to the blaze.

Forensic tests carried out allegedly found that the fire was started from inside the house, either accidentally or on purpose.

Two inquests into the deaths of the 13 teenagers – one held in 1981 and a second in 2004 – both returned open verdicts despite fears from grieving relatives that it could have been a racist arson attack.

The fire galvanised the black community amid rumours that it had been started deliberately and the New Cross Massacre Action Committee was launched, with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson as one of the founders.

13 DEAD, NOTHING SAID: New Cross Massacre Action Committee demonstrators outside inquest in 1981

There was a feeling that the young black lives which had been lost did not have the same level of value as the lives of white teenagers; after the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (then Prime Minister) sent messages of condolence to families in Ireland when white teenagers died in a disco fire and said nothing about the New Cross deaths. This silence inspired a poem penned by Benjamin Zephaniah, 13 Dead, Nothing Said; which became a slogan for the justice campaign.

Newspaper reports of the largely peaceful protests and the march for justice were sullied with racism. Derogatory headlines such as "Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London" from The Sun, "Rampage of a Mob" by The Daily Express, and "When the Black Tide Met the Thin Blue Line" printed by The Daily Mail caused additional upset for grieving families.

Members of the UK's black community were mobilised in protest at what they found to be the apathy and indifference of 'The Establishment'. Six weeks after the fire 20,000 people held a protest march in Hyde Park.

The fatal party had been held at the south east London home of George Ruddock’s young cousin Yvonne Ruddock to celebrate her 16th birthday. Yvonne and her brother Paul both died in the fire.

PROTEST: The New Cross Massacre Action Committee watch as police officers make their way into the 1981 inquest

The recent death of their mother, George’s aunt, has galvanised him into launching a fresh plea for a public inquiry after almost four decades.

Former Barclays bank worker George, who was brought up in Rugby, where he serves on the committee of the Rugby West Indian Community Association, told The Voice:

“I still remember the terror of the fire as if it was yesterday.

“I was on the top floor of the three-storey house and I remember Paul, Yvonne’s brother, running upstairs shouting there was a fire; his hair was covered in dust and soot. He turned to go downstairs and that was the last we saw of him. He died a hero trying to save other people.

“We realised that the floor was spongy because of the heat which was rising underneath us. People were screaming and panicking so we had to jump for our lives out of the top floor window. I was very lucky as I only had slight damage to my arm. I remember looking down and seeing the metal spikes of railings at the front of the house. We had no choice but to jump as far as we could.

“I lost two cousins and two close friends that night and my life changed forever. It either was or wasn’t a racist attack – we don’t know, but I know the way the police treated us at the time was 100 per cent racist.

“It’s time we found out once and for all what happened. I wish I didn’t have to do this, but we owe it to those who died and I would like to think that if I had died someone would launch this campaign in my memory too. It is something so close to my heart.”

SUPPORT: Lee Jasper has vowed to help get justice for the fire's victims

George has also been prompted by a BBC news report, written in November 2015, which claimed the Metropolitan Police abruptly halted an investigation in 1991 into convicted double killer Michael Smithyman’s claims that he was present at the New Cross Fire. He claimed he saw people trapped in the flames and said it had been started by a criminal associate who petrol bombed the house as a reprisal for being refused entry.

However Smithyman, who now lives in prison as a woman named Michelle, later stated she was not present when the fire started.

In 2015 the Metropolitan Police said:

“A number of reviews and follow-up inquiries have been conducted over the years into claims by this person, and no evidence has been found.”

George has enlisted the support of Lee Jasper a London-based veteran race relations and community activist, to help him gather the 100,000 signatures.

Jasper told The Voice:

“I’ve told George that I am happy to organise a meeting with him and the other victims’ families. We need to understand where the case is now, legally, and look at the viability of getting a desired outcome.”

BACKING: Kwame Kwei-Armah is on-hand to publicise the new petition (photo credit: Alchetron)

Playwright and director Kwame Kwei-Armah organised an event in 2011 at the Albany Theatre in London to commemorate the 30th anniversary of those who died in the fire.

On hearing of the campaign for a public inquiry, he told The Voice:

“When I was a teenager I remember seeing televised reports of people marching after that fire and it was a pivotal moment for me.

“It was the first time I had seen black Britons participate in an organised demonstration. I remember that demonstration was saying: ‘Do something – treat us fairly.’

“Look at Doreen Lawrence and her struggle – that was not just for her, but for all of us. I would be fully behind this campaign.”

In response to a plea for a public inquiry a Metropolitan Police spokesperson told The Voice:

“The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) thoroughly investigated the circumstances of the fatal fire in New Cross in January 1981. Over the years a number of reviews and follow up enquiries have been conducted.

"Any new and genuine information which comes to light will be thoroughly assessed by the MPS.”

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