A coroner has apologised to the families of 11 men who were killed in the Shoreham Airshow tragedy for their seven-year wait for answers.
West Sussex senior coroner Penelope Schofield expressed her “deepest regret” that the ordeal endured by relatives of those who died had been “added to” by delays to the inquest.
The victims of the disaster died after a plane taking part in an aerial display in August 2015 crashed on to the nearby A27 in West Sussex.
A further 13 people were injured in the incident.
Some were watching the event from a grass verge near the Shoreham Airport entrance, while others were in cars travelling on the road or crossing it on foot.
The pilot of the Hawker Hunter plane, Andrew Hill, was charged with 11 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence but found not guilty on all counts in March 2019. He maintains he has no recollection of the crash.
The inquest into the 11 deaths was originally opened on September 2 2015 but was adjourned in 2018 due to the criminal trial of Mr Hill.
It resumed in March 2019 after the trial, but hearings set for September 2020 were again postponed due to the pandemic.
A pre-inquest review was heard on September 1 where senior coroner Ms Schofield said the inquest “would not reinvestigate the crash”, as this evidence had been provided by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
Opening the full inquest in Horsham on Wednesday, Ms Schofield said: “On a sunny summer day on August 22 2015 at around 1.32pm, 11 men were killed and numerous other people suffered significant injuries when a former military Hawker Hunter aircraft ladened with fuel doing an aerobatic display at the Shoreham Airshow crashed onto the A27 in the most horrific circumstances.”
She added: “I can only express my deepest regret that the ordeal of all the bereaved has been added to by the time it has taken for these inquests to be heard.
“You have all tolerated a far longer wait for these inquest hearings to commence then I would ever have wished for. I am so sorry you have waited so long.”
The 11 victims were Anthony Brightwell, 53, from Hove; Daniele Polito, 23, from Goring-by-Sea; Dylan Archer, 42, from Brighton; Jacob Schilt, 23, from Brighton; James Mallinson, 72, from Newick; Mark Reeves, 53, from Seaford; Mark Trussler, 54, from Worthing; Matthew Grimstone, 23, from Brighton; Matthew Jones, 24, from Littlehampton; Maurice Abrahams, 76, from Brighton; and Richard Smith, 26, from Hove.
The coroner also apologised to families that the inquest would be unable to reconsider “many matters that remain a concern to them” after the High Court denied an application to include some of the evidence from the criminal trial of Mr Hill, including a cockpit video of the crash.
Mr Hill will not be called as a witness, having submitted evidence to the investigation.
His request at the pre-inquest review for Ms Schofield to rule out a verdict of unlawful killing was denied.
Law firm Stewarts is representing seven of the families who lost loved ones in the disaster.
Sarah Stewart, partner in the aviation department, said: “This is the last step in a long road to justice and truth for the families of those killed in the Shoreham Airshow disaster.
“After seven years, they are finally about to get some answers on how this disaster happened.
“The coroner’s conclusions will not bring their loved ones back, but there will be some solace in the hope that the findings lead to improved safety in the planning of future air shows.”
Grief-stricken parents and families appeared at Wednesday’s hearing to pay tribute to those who lost their lives and lament the “horrific” circumstances in which they died.
In a pen portrait read on their behalf, the family of 72-year-old James Graham Mallinson described him as a “true gentleman” and the “kindest, gentlest and most generous of men”.
Retired electrical engineer Mr Mallinson, 72, was a keen photographer and had travelled to the event hoping to capture shots of the Vulcan bomber which was making one of its last appearances in the display.
He had been “in the right place” and “doing what he loved, but at the worst possible time”, his family said, adding they remain “deeply scarred” by the disaster.
The father of 23-year-old footballer Matthew Grimstone paid an emotional tribute to his “talented, funny, loving and handsome” son.
Mr Grimstone died after getting caught up in the Shoreham Airshow disaster while on his way to a Worthing United game with team-mate, 23-year-old Jacob Schilt.
His father Phil told the inquest: “Matthew lost his life due to an aircraft being flown purely for entertainment – for fun, for those attending an airshow.
“This is something we find hard to comprehend and difficult to bear. All his hopes, all his dreams, all the things he never got to do.”
Mr Schilt’s mother wept as she told the inquest her son had been “completely defenceless” when he died alongside Mr Grimstone.
Caroline Schilt tearfully recalled his “sharp wit and a cheeky sense of humour”, telling the inquest: “He loved to wind me up but in spite of that we were very close – he was always my little boy and he was my pride and joy.”
Mrs Schilt said the family would never recover from the circumstances in which he died, adding: “Jacob was exactly in the right place in the right time, going about his business travelling to play his favourite game with his friend.
“What happened to them was unthinkable. They were completely defenceless.”
The inquest continues on Friday.
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