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Fire crews unaware much-loved father was inside burning house in Sandgate, Folkestone

Firefighters battled a fierce house blaze believing the home was abandoned – only to be told after almost 40 minutes that someone was likely inside.

Crews were called to Sunnyside Road in Sandgate, Folkestone, after the property went up in flames on Christmas Eve last year.

Philip Williams died in a house fire in Sandgate, Folkestone
Philip Williams died in a house fire in Sandgate, Folkestone

Initial reports from first responders at the scene suggested the burning building was empty.

But 39 minutes after crews were called a worried friend of tenant Philip Williams turned up and informed them he was probably inside the house.

The 73-year-old’s body was disovered the next day.

The coroner’s court in County Hall, Maidstone, heard last week that Mr Williams had been staying at the house, which was owned by a friend, since 2020, and had been due to move out this year once the purchase of his own home had gone through.

The retired telecoms business owner was known to often light an open-faced coal fire, and had been warned a number of times by friends that it needed covering.

The fire in Sandgate. Picture: UKNIP
The fire in Sandgate. Picture: UKNIP

One friend later told investigators that when he had visited Mr Williams, a burning piece of coal had rolled out onto the carpet.

“I told him he needed to sort this, or one day it will kill him,” he added.

The court heard that the father-of-five had been due to meet friends at a local pub on the afternoon of December 24 last year, and had been texting his children and family as normal just minutes before smoke was spotted rising from the property.

A total of eight fire engines and a height vehicle were called from various towns surrounding the area, but headquarters were informed the building was thought to be abandoned.

It was not until 39 minutes after firefighters were called that a friend who had been expecting Mr Williams for drinks turned up at the house and informed them he was believed to be inside – but the fire had taken hold to such a degree that rescue was deemed to be impossible.

Fire crews at the scene in Sandgate. Picture: UKNIP
Fire crews at the scene in Sandgate. Picture: UKNIP

The following day, a forensic investigator was called to the property to establish the cause of the fire. However, the blaze had caused severe damage to the structure of the building, with the roof and higher floors collapsing onto the ground inside, leaving the walls with little support.

Such was the risk of collapse that operators were only able to establish that the fire had started in a ground floor room close to the front door, where the body of Mr Williams was found. No direct cause for the fire was ever confirmed.

A subsequent post-mortem revealed Mr Williams had been alive when the fire started, with his cause of death being given as smoke inhalation.

In a statement to the court read out by area coroner Katrina Hepburn, a spokesperson for Mr Williams’ five children said that they did not believe the fire was started purposefully, nor with the intention to kill himself.

“He had planned to see his family on Christmas Day, and I have the honest held belief that he would not do this to himself,” they added.

Philip Williams water-skiing in his younger years
Philip Williams water-skiing in his younger years

“Daddy had so much to live for, and had many exciting plans for the new year, as well as his grandkids and the grandkids yet to come; he was also buying himself a new house.”

Ms Hepburn agreed that there was nothing to suggest Mr Williams had any intention to take his own life, and recorded a narrative conclusion.

“It is possible that a medical event occurred that made him unconscious, but this would be mere speculation,” she said.

Addressing the family, she added: “My most sincere condolences for your loss.”

Speaking after the inquest, Mr Williams’ family described him as a man who “always lived life to the fullest”.

“He loved extreme sports such as sky-diving and water-skiing,” they added.

“He was a well-respected local entrepreneur, having built multiple businesses in Kent, and most of all a devoted and loving family man.

“He lived for his five children and five grandchildren and we miss him tremendously.”

A Kent Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson said: “KFRS was called at 4.52pm on December 24, 2022 to reports of a house fire in Sunnyside Road, in Sandgate, Folkestone.

“On arrival, the fire was fully developed, and crews began firefighting procedures.

“At 5.31pm, information was received to suggest a person was inside the property.

“Sadly, due to the severity of the fire, the man was pronounced dead at the scene the next day.”

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