Alistair Ferguson inquest: Mechanic was crushed by 27-tonne armoured vehicle that had been left in the wrong gear at Catterick Garrison

A military contractor was crushed to death by an armoured vehicle at Catterick Garrison when he left it in the wrong gear, an inquest heard today.

Grandfather and ex-army serviceman Alistair Watt Ferguson, 58, died while examining a 27-tonne Cougar Wolfhound six-wheeled truck for his employers Babcock, who conduct all vehicle maintenance for the MOD at Catterick, in January 2020.

The Afghanistan veteran from Richmond, who had worked for Babcock's Defence Support Group at Catterick since 2006, was conducting a two-man annual check of the Wolfhound and was about to start an emissions test when he became trapped between the vehicle and the door of the workshop.

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A jury inquest at Pavilions of Harrogate was told that Mr Ferguson and colleague Aidan Jones had been driving the Wolfhound around a test circuit while working overtime on the base, and parked it close to the workshop entrance to connect it to the testing machine. Mr Ferguson leaned into the cab to tell Mr Jones, who was sitting in the passenger's seat, that they could take a coffee break while the machine warmed up.

Alistair Watt Ferguson

Mr Jones, believing the automatic gearbox had been set to 'neutral' as the Wolfhound was stationary, asked Mr Ferguson if he was aware of the presence of an emergency handbrake release valve - intended to be used by soldiers trapped in the cab while under fire - beneath the driver's seat. He showed the toggle switch to him and deactivated it while Mr Ferguson was still standing on a footplate beneath the driver's door.

Not realising that the gearbox was in the 'drive' setting, Mr Jones was shocked when the Wolfhound began to roll forwards, and within four seconds had collided with the building while Mr Ferguson was still trapped by the armoured door of the vehicle. He managed to jump into the driver's seat and reverse the truck, but Mr Ferguson was already unconscious and died at the scene from chest and abdominal injuries.

The inquest heard that although the engines of the Cougar fleet had to be left running during exhaust testing, the established protocol for Babcock mechanics was that the vehicles would be left in neutral gear while idling with the parking brake on. Mr Ferguson, who served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, was an experienced vehicle examiner, but had only worked on Cougars for a short period before his death.

An examination of the Wolfhound after Mr Ferguson's death established that an alarm which should have activated when the emergency brake valve was released did not sound, and though a warning light on the dashboard was operational, Mr Jones could not recall either man noticing it come on.

The emergency valve was not on the Wolfhound's maintenance schedule that day and its mention appears to have been purely conversational, as Mr Ferguson was not already aware of its location within the cab and asked Mr Jones how it worked. He said he had 'no reason' to believe that Mr Ferguson, who had been driving on the test track, would not have engaged the neutral gear setting.

The inquest was told that the forwards motion once released would have been extremely slow, with no sudden jolt, and by the time Mr Ferguson realised the Wolfhound was moving he would have been unable to escape due to the width of the door's Kevlar armour plating once the impact with the workshop began to push it closed.

Mr Ferguson had no significant medical history and a postmortem found no drugs or alcohol in his system.

Evidence was given by several Babcock supervisory staff who outlined the safety procedures taught to employees.

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Instructor Paul Watson, who had known Mr Ferguson for 13 years and served in Afghanistan with him, provided familiarisation training as part of an army-approved assessment programme in December 2019, when Mr Ferguson moved onto the protected mobility line that included the Cougar fleet. Mr Ferguson was taught that the Cougars, which are all automatic, should all be left in neutral when not being driven.

Mr Watson was satisfied with Mr Ferguson's performance during the sessions and passed him for all components of the course, saying that he 'appeared confident' and did not return with any queries.

Driver trainer Marcus Newcombe agreed that both Mr Ferguson and Mr Jones were competent drivers who had undergone training to drive the Cougars within the confines of the base. Babcock's site manager Michael Robinson confirmed that both men were considered 'model employees' who were skilled and experienced enough to undertake the work they were completing at the time of the accident. No similar incidents had been recorded on the garrison.

Paying tribute to Mr Ferguson, who was married and left son Iain and daughter Katie, his family said: "He was a selfless and loving husband, father, grandfather and friend.

"He greeted everything in life with a smile on his face and a positive attitude.

"Words cannot describe the shock and grief we are feeling. This tragic death should not have happened and we hope that no family ever has to go through this again.

"We thank everyone for their kind words and ask that you kindly give us the privacy to grieve in peace."

The jury returned a conclusion of accidental death.