An inquest into the death of a man whose body was found in rubble days after a fire has heard that the blaze could have been caused by a lit cigarette.
The remains of Mark Herron, 53, were found following a blaze at a garage next to a house on Tunstall Village Green, in the Silksworth area of Sunderland on February 18, 2020.
Northumbria Police initially launched a murder investigation following the grim discovery, and a 38-year-old man was arrested.
However, detectives confirmed Mark’s death is no longer thought to be suspicious and the suspect was released with no further action.
The inquest heard from Detective Chief Inspector Graeme Dodds who said Northumbria Police received a call from staff at McDonald’s to say that the intoxicated Mr Herron was causing problems and refused to leave.
Officers subsequently dropped him off at Sunderland Royal Hospital where he received treatment for the condition he was in.
However, officers later encountered Mr Herron later that day after he left hospital without being discharged.
He was taken back to hospital but later that evening after he was discharged, police were called to the hospital by security staff after Mr Herron began “causing issues”.
Officers picked him up again and they were told to drop him off at an address in Tunstall Green Village where he said he would ask a friend if he could stay at his house.
DCI Dodds told the coroner: “He was taken by officers to that address and requested officers not to go with him to the door to better his chance of getting in.
“Mark took himself out of the vehicle walked down the driveway and officers drove away from that address. They didn’t see him go into the property.”
Later that day at 8.47pm police were alerted to a fire at a garage at the address which was totally destroyed in the blaze.
Flames were “clearly visible” from the left side of the building and there was “acrid smoke” but it was initially thought that no-one was inside the garage.
On February 19, Mr Herron’s sister and probation officer both reported him missing after they didn’t hear from him.
DCI Dodds said: “Initially we were focused very much on Mark being a suspect for the arson. We thought he may be outstanding within the community not within the building itself.”
On February 23, human remains were recovered following a search with a dog unit and a man was arrested on suspicion of murder but was later released without charge.
In a report by Emma Wilson who looked at how the fire may have been started, she said she believed the fire originated in and around the position where Mr Herron’s body was.
She also said it was possible that the fire started from a lit cigarette or naked flames like a match or candle.
DCI Dodds said: “She felt in terms of the time frame that there would be a credible argument that it could have been started by a lit cigarette or a naked flame from a candle or match.”
Forensic pathologist Dr Nigel Cooper said a post-mortem revealed extensive burning to the body and a thick layer of soot in the main airways.
The report said there was “nothing whatsoever” to suggest there were any other injuries that were caused or contributed to his death or that he had been a victim of an assault.
His cause of death was given as burns and smoke inhalation.
A toxicology report revealed he was three times over the driving limit and was intoxicated to a “severe degree”.
Police concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances or third-party involvement.
The inquest heard how the delay in finding Mr Herron’s body did not “cause or contribute” to his death in any way as he would have died rapidly.
An investigation was carried out into police conduct by the professional standards department but they found no criminality or misconduct had taken place.
When asked whether a thorough search for Mr Herron’s body could have been done sooner, DCI Dodds said “very possibly”.
Ian Robinson from Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service said after their initial attendance, the fire service was asked to attend the property again and carry out another search.
He said: “We were asked if we could make a further search of the premises. It was impossible to see anything, the rubble was really high.”
The inquest also heard how the situation was made more difficult due to the unsafe structure and the hazardous contents inside.
Senior Coroner Derek Winter concluded that Mark Herron died as a result of an accident and passed his condolences on to his family.
Although he said he would not be writing a prevention of future deaths report to the police and fire service, he said he would write to them separately.
He said this was to encourage the fire service to follow any new national policies and to ensure an update on the police’s IT system stays on track for April 2022.