The eleven people who were in court can breathe again. Accused of manslaughter in the trial of Portugal’s deadliest fire in Pedrogao Grande in June 2017, they were all acquitted on Tuesday by the Leiria court (center).
While shortcomings in preventing and combating this bushfire were actually found during the trial, Supreme Court President Maria Clara Santos believed that the extent of the tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of 63 people, was caused by a natural phenomenon of “violence.
Intense relief for the defendants and their relatives
Sitting in the dock, the commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade, local executives of an electricity supplier and a road manager, as well as several local elected officials, greeted this verdict with great relief, in front of a packed hall. where only a few relatives of the victims were present.
“It has not been proven that the deaths and injuries were the result, by act or omission, of the conduct of any of the defendants,” the court said in a statement released after the hearing. According to the judges, the violence of the fire was caused by a phenomenon “never observed before in Portugal or in the whole of the European continent”, which occurred when the smoke and heat emanating from the fire suddenly precipitated, creating discharges and an “explosion. of fire “, described the incumbent president Maria Clara Santos.
Trapped in cars
On 17 June 2017 the municipality of Pedrogao Grande, located almost 200 kilometers north of Lisbon, made up of 72% of uninterrupted forest areas, and the whole of Portugal was hit by a strong heat wave and the most severe drought from 1931, she recalled.
The court acknowledged that the companies responsible for the maintenance of the electricity network and the roads had not fully complied with the rules that required them to create protective strips without vegetation, but was not convinced that this would actually slow the progression of the flames. Most of the victims were trapped in their vehicles as they tried to escape the fire by car.
The “system” has “failed”
The commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade at the time, Augusto Arnaut was accused of delaying the mobilization of the means that could have allowed the control of the fire in his childhood, before it devastated 24,000 hectares in five days, but the court explained that it had found flaws at various levels of the combat system.
“It is not the commander who has failed, it is the system”, reacted the president of the Portuguese League of Firefighters, Jaime Marta Soares. Before the hearing opened on Tuesday morning, about a hundred of his comrades in uniform gathered in front of the court in an honor guard to express their “silent” solidarity.
“No human intervention”
“This decision is surprising because we come up with the idea that there was no human intervention in this tragedy,” regretted the lawyer of several of the victims’ families, André Batoca. The year 2017 remains a bad memory for the Portuguese because after a new wave of fires in mid-October, the toll of forest fires had risen to a total of 117 deaths.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa acknowledged that the responsibility of the state has been committed and that the families of the victims of the fires in June and October 2017 have been compensated for a total of 31 million euros.