TRAVEL FIRM Thomas Cook has nothing to apologise for over the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Greece, its boss told an inquest yesterday.
Group chief executive officer Peter Fankhauser was giving evidence at the hearing in Wakefield into the deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, aged seven and six, who died at a hotel complex in Corfu in October 2006.
Mr Fankhauser took to the witness box after one of his predecessors, Manny Fontenla-Novoa, refused to answer a series of questions over the tragedy.
The current chief executive, who took over at the head of Thomas Cook Group in November last year, was asked to apologise to the family on behalf of the firm.
He said: “I feel incredibly sorry for the family – incredibly sorry. But I don’t have to apologise.”
Leslie Thomas QC, representing Bobby and Christi’s family, asked Mr Fankhauser to explain why he did not feel Thomas Cook should apologise.
He said: “I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry but there’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook.”
The jury at the inquest has heard the children, from Horbury, near Wakefield, were on a half-term break with their father, Neil, and his partner, now wife, Ruth. They were found dead in a bungalow in the grounds of the hotel. Mr and Mrs Shepherd were found in comas but recovered.
Jurors have heard the children were poisoned by carbon monoxide from a faulty hot water boiler.
Mr Fankhauser said Thomas Cook, which had a policy of avoiding hotels where rooms had gas hot water appliances, was lied to by people at the hotel who said there was no gas supply there. He said the immediate cause of the problem was that a vital safety device had been disconnected.
He gave evidence after Mr Fontenla-Novoa, chief executive of Thomas Cook’s UK and Ireland operation in 2006 who went on to become group chief executive when he gave evidence to West Yorkshire Police in 2009.
Coroner David Hinchliff warned Mr Fontenla-Novoa he did not have to answer questions which might incriminate him. He responded to virtually every question put to him by saying: “I decline to answer.”
But when he was invited by Mr Thomas to “look my clients in the eyes” and express his sympathy, Mr Fontenla-Novoa said: “I deeply regret the incident that occurred.”
He turned to look at Christi and Bobby’s parents as he said the words and repeated them when he was asked by the barrister to speak louder. The children’s mother, Sharon Wood, said from the public gallery: “Speak up for yourself, then.”
Mr Thomas told the former chief executive: “I’m going to suggest to you that what was more important to Thomas Cook was profit so Thomas Cook put profit before safety.”
Mr Fontenla-Novoa said: “I decline to answer.”
Mr Thomas then asked Mr Fontenla-Novoa: “How does it make you feel that your customers, who paid good money for your services, have had to wait eight and a half years to get answers as to how their children were lost, and you are saying ‘I decline to answer’?
“Does it make you feel good?”
The witness said: “I decline to answer.”
Mr Thomas asked about Thomas Cook’s health and safety systems and Mr Fontenla-Novoa declined to answer all his questions.
The barrister said: “If these systems worked, these kids would be alive. So what happened?” Mr Fontenla-Novoa refused to answer.
Mr Thomas said: “Your staff have all sat there and declined to answer. Are you going to lead by example and co-operate?” The witness again refused to answer.
The hearing continues.