THE first member of the emergency services at the scene of the worst hotel fire in the UK for 40 years has described the early stages of the blaze as "complete chaos".
PC Jemma Rail, the first police officer to arrive, told the inquest into the Penhallow Hotel fire in Newquay that there were people screaming at her to save an elderly lady trapped in the hotel.
She was speaking at the sixth day of an inquest at Truro Crown Court into the deaths of Joan Harper, 80, Peter Hughes, 43, and his mother Monica Hughes, 86, who died in the blaze in August 2007.
The inquest yesterday heard from two members of staff at the hotel, porters David Reed and Chris Rollason, who told the court they had no knowledge of how the fire started.
PC Rail told the inquest she expected the fire brigade to arrive with an aerial ladder platform designed to reach high buildings. But on the night of the fire no such ladder was available in Cornwall and an appliance had to be brought from Plymouth which took about 45 minutes.
The officer also praised the courage of firefighters who "risked their lives" in a desperate bid to control the inferno.
PC Rail had been at the hotel to deal with a suspected burglary in one of the rooms less than half an hour before the alarm was raised.
She said on arrival at the scene at about 12.23am she could see huge flames coming from the Penhallow area. "As I looked down I could see complete chaos with lots of people walking down towards the fire.
"Members of the public were pointing up and saying there were people inside. I shone the torch up to the upper levels and I could see an elderly female standing in the window of a room on the third floor. She was banging on the window and I believe she was trapped in the room."
PC Rail said she became aware of abuse aimed at her from people standing on the grass outside the hotel.
She said: "Three or four members of the public were shouting that I was useless and that they were going to go in."
PC Rail said she was not sure when exactly the fire service arrived but noticed they did not have an aerial ladder platform with which to rescue the woman.
She told the court: "Despite the severity of the fire I thought the fire brigade would have the right equipment and they would be able to get her out of the building."
When asked by the coroner, Dr Emma Carlyon, if she thought the fire brigade did everything they could to save lives, PC Rail replied: "Yes, with the equipment they had. The people there worked very hard and put their lives at risk."
The inquest heard evidence from Mr Reed, a kitchen porter at the hotel, who was told to leave early on the night of the fire.
He told the court he had been drinking and smoking cannabis in the evening and was asleep when the fire started.
Mr Rollason, day porter at the Penhallow, was asked by the coroner if he had any knowledge of how the fire started, to which he replied: "No."
The inquest is expected to continue for the next three weeks.