Table Mountain fire an accident, court hears

Despite police warnings that he had no obligation to say anything about a fire he had allegedly started on the slopes of Table Mountain, British national Anthony Cooper told the flying squad it had been an accident, the Cape Town Regional Court heard on Wednesday.

Cooper is charged with culpable homicide resulting from the death of elderly British tourist Janet Chesworth in the fire on January 26 last year.

He is also charged with a contravention of the National Forestry Act.

Prosecutor Nation Loliwe alleges that Cooper tossed a burning cigarette butt on to the dry grass on the slopes of Table Mountain, causing a runaway fire.

Flying Squad police officer John Ross told the court he was on his way from the city to Radio Control in Maitland when he noticed the fire.

He said strong winds caused the fire to spread rapidly and, instead of proceeding to radio control headquarters he did a U-turn and headed for the mountains to assist in any possible evacuations.

As he entered the road leading to the lower cable-car station, taxi driver Craig Ward stopped him to say he had information about how the fire started.

Ross said he took Ward’s details, intending to contact him later and then rushed on towards the fire.

Ross said he was the first to arrive at the scene.

Soon after, the fire department arrived and asked Ross to instruct staff in a nearby mountain shop to close up and prepare to evacuate.

Ross said he evacuated four tourists in his patrol car and then heard from the dead woman’s daughter, Lynda, that her mother was still up in the mountains.

Ross said that Cooper was later pointed out to him, and he placed Cooper under arrest on a charge of arson.

Ross said he warned Cooper that he had no obligation to say anything about the fire and that he had the right to legal representation.

Despite the warning, Cooper told him he did not mean to start the fire and that it had been an accident.

Meanwhile, taxi driver Jack Furter told the court he had been parked near the cable car station that afternoon, with colleague Ward, in two separate vehicles.

 

He said he and Ward were seated together in his vehicle when he noticed Cooper coming down the slopes of the mountain.

 

Cooper’s car, a VW Beetle, had been parked behind their two cars.

 

Furter said Cooper passed them as he made his way to the Beetle.

 

He said he and Ward got out and went to the rear of Furter’s car to drink coffee from a flask.

 

Furter told the court: “As Cooper closed the boot of his car I saw him toss a burning cigarette butt on to the grass.”

 

Furter said a strong wind was blowing, and within seconds the grass was alight.

 

Furter said he immediately alerted forest rangers in a hut nearby.

 

He said Cooper drove off with friends, but he (Furter) managed to note the registration number of Cooper’s car.

 

Asked by prosecutor Loliwe if he and Ward had tried to extinguish the burning grass, Furter replied: “There was no chance of anyone trying to put out the fire.”

 

Questioned by the defence team, advocate Reuben Liddell and attorney Joe Weber, Furter said it had been his own initiative to alert the rangers about the fire.

 

Four or five rangers had reacted, and first helped Cooper to push start his car, before they tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire.

 

Furter said Ward’s version of the incident—that Cooper had “flicked something out of the window” whilst seated in the car—was incorrect.

 

Furter insisted that his own version was correct, that Cooper had tossed the burning cigarette on to the grass whilst closing the boot of the car.

 

The hearing continues on December 10, when a medical practitioner is to testify for the state about the autopsy performed on Chesworth.—Sapa

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