An eight-year-old foster child with a ”fascination with fire” killed himself and his sister by starting a blaze at their home with a cigarette lighter, an inquest heard.
Ben Mcauliffe was fostered at the age of six months but but began starting fires in and around the family home as he got older.
He had previously been found using lighters and matches to set light to his bed, curtains and a large wooden table.
But in October last year he managed to take a lighter from his foster mother Gill Wojak and start a blaze which ripped through the home in minutes.
Ben, who had learning difficulties, is thought he set fire to paint-covered sheets which had been spread across downstairs furniture as the family prepared to decorate.
Gill, husband Mike, 52, and their natural son Ricky Wojak, 20, managed to escape the housing association property, which had not been fitted with smoke alarms.
But despite the efforts of neighbours and fire crews, Ben and the couple’s natural daughter Stephani Wojak, 15, died in the blaze.
Yesterday Mike and Gill, of Torquay, Devon, told the inquest how Ben had developed a ”fascination with fire” and had been known to start them in the past.
Fire crews say the blaze was not started by an electrical fault and a disposable lighter was found in the living room.
In a statement to the inquest in Torquay, Gill said Ben had often set fire to papers, curtains and even his own bed.
She said: ”It crossed my mind that Ben started the fire. Ben liked to watch flames and in the past, he found lighters and sparked them up to watch them.
”In the past he scorched a wooden table, set fire to his bed which I quickly put out, and set fire to some net curtains in the lounge.
”We had always got there in time and told Ben about the dangers of fire, but he didn’t seem to understand.
”We kept all our lighters in our pockets or up high so he couldn’t get to them but a few days before the fire I lost a couple from a pack I’d bought, but thought I had just put them away somewhere.”
More than 20 firefighters were called to the blaze at 10.30am on October 17 last year after smoke was seen pouring from the windows of the rented property.
Gill told the inquest on the day of the fire Ben had come into their bedroom shouting ‘fire’ and had a ‘naughty face’ on.
The family saw smoke pouring up the stairs and in the panic the couple became separated from Stephani and Ben.
Gill said: ”Ricky ran into my bedroom panicking and told me there was a fire, and Ben had come into the room behind him.
”Ricky took the front door keys and went downstairs and I looked at Ben and said ‘Have you done something?’
”He said no but he was looking at the floor and had what we call his naughty face on, as though he was expecting to be told off.
”I asked him if he had been playing with fire and he said no again but he was shaking so I rubbed his shoulders and said it was OK.
”I wasn’t worried at this point because I expected it to be a small paper fire, easily put out and I thought Ricky was dealing with it.”
She added: ”I then left Ben in the bedroom with my husband and went to check downstairs. But as I walked to the top of the stairs I could see black smoke billowing up the stairwell.
”I could the flames roaring and I couldn’t see Ricky anywhere. I called out and tried to get downstairs but the smoke was too thick.
”Stephani had come out of her bedroom and Mike told her to ring the fire brigade. She went to her room to get a phone and Ben followed her and I went to get mine from my room.
”We called the fire brigade but when we went to get Stephani and Ben the smoke was so thick we couldn’t get out of our room.”
Neighbours battled through fierce flames and thick smoke to rescue Gill and Mike, who also have sons Scott, 28, and Daniel, 25, from an upstairs rear bedroom window.
One neighbour climbed onto the roof of the house to pull her out of the window while another man used a ladder to get inside and drag Mike to safety.
Fire crews then fought their way into the house and found the bodies of Ben and GCSE student Stephani, both of whom died of cardiac arrest as a result of smoke inhalation.
Former army soldier Mike told the inquest he thought that Ben had done something when he came into their bedroom.
His statement said: ”When Ben and Ricky came into the room, Ben was shouting ‘fire, fire’.
”Gill asked him if he had touched fire and he shook his head but he was looking at the floor like he did when he knew he had been naughty.
”Ben had mood swings. If he had had a bad day at school, he would come back and often found lighters or matches and set fire to bits of paper.
”He just couldn’t help being fascinated by flames.”
Neighbours have described Ben – whose natural parents lives in Torquay – as a ”happy boy” who would often wave to them from the upstairs window.
Fire crews investigating the fire said a disposable lighter had been found in the living room where the fire originated.
In a statement to the inquest, Torquay station manager Keith Pasco said: ”The investigation came to the conclusion that a person inside house started the fire using the lighter that was found at the scene.
”It is most probable that a child with a fascination for fire deliberately started the fire.
”The house was also not fitted with any smoke alarms. Had there been earlier detection, the outcome may have been different.”
South Devon Coroner Ian Arrow said he was satisfied that the fire had been deliberately started by a child.
He said: ”This was a very tragic day. After looking at the evidence, I am satisfied to say that the fire was started by a child, with a lighter in the lounge.
”The property was unfortunately, not evacuated immediately and the deceased went into a back bedroom instead of outside.”
He recorded two verdicts of accidental death by inhalation of products of combustion.
A spokesman for Riviera Housing Trust, which owns the house, said that smoke alarms would now be fitted in all their properties.