Police - nothing to suggest fatal Harlow house fire was racist attack
POLICE are today (Tuesday, October 16) continuing "painstaking" forensic examinations of the scene of a fatal house fire in Harlow as they attempt to establish a motive for the suspected arson attack.
Sabah Usmani (44), sons Sohaib (11) and Rayyan (6) and 12-year-old daughter Hira died in their end-of-terrace house in Barn Mead in the early hours of Monday (October 15). Her husband, Abdul Shakoor, also a doctor, suffered minor injuries as he fought to rescue his family from the blaze.
A third son, Muneeb (9), and youngest daughter Maheen (3) were rescued by fire crews and taken to Princess Alexandra Hospital in a critical condition, but doctors were unable to save Muneeb.
Leave your tribute to Sabah Usmani, Hira, Sohaib, Rayyan and Muneeb using the guestbook at the end of this story.
Maheen remains in a critical condition this morning (Tuesday, October 16) after being transferred to the specialist Burns Unit at Broomfield Hospital. Mr Shakoor was moved to the Chelmsford hospital last night to be closer to his daughter.
Police have said there is currently "nothing to suggest" the incident was a result of a racially-motivated attack, but hinted that one line of inquiry is that the family were not the intended target of the attackers. Dr Shakoor, who police say is traumatised at the loss of his children, is not being treated as a suspect.
Detectives are now working to establish a possible motive. There have been no previous problems with racism in the area, and although there have been reports of arson attacks on cars in nearby neighbourhoods, police have now categorically ruled out the possibility of a serial arsonist being responsible for the fire.
Witness reports suggest between one and four people were in the area at the time of the blaze. Such sightings will form key lines of inquiry, police said. A car was also found alight a short distance from the house and has been taken away for further examination. The vehicle was not connected to the family but the fire is being treated as arson.
"Painstaking" forensic examinations at the family's end-of-terrace home are set to continue throughout today, and detectives have renewed their appeal for anyone with information to come forward.
To support the investigation, a mobile policing unit has been set up in Barn Mead to give the public around-the-clock access to officers.
Assistant Chief Constable Gary Beautridge, head of the Essex and Kent serious crime directorate, said: "In the history of Essex Police seldom has there been an incident of this gravity in which five people, four of them children, have lost their lives.
"I would like to stress that the father of these children was in the property at the time and fought hard to save his family in appalling conditions. He is being supported by specially trained family liaison officers and, as you would expect, is in severe shock."
Detective Superintendent Rob Vinson, who is leading the investigation, said the local community could hold the answer. He added: "I fully appreciate the community will be devastated. Nobody expects such a catastrophic incident in their own neighbourhood."
"Much-liked and respected"
Dr Shakoor has worked at Princess Alexandra Hospital as an Endocrinologist and Diabetes Regsistrar for just over a year. Dr Usmani did not work as she cared for the children. Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, they had lived in Saudi Arabia, where the children were born, for more than a decade before moving to the UK.
This morning, members of the The Harlow Islamic Centre on Paringdon Road paid tribute to the family, describing them as "much liked and respected" in the community.
"On behalf of the Harlow Islamic Centre, we would like to offer our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Dr Shakoor," a spokesman said.
"We are deeply saddened and shocked by this tragedy in which his wife and four children died.
"Dr Shakoor and his family were very much liked and respected in the local community. This loss of life will be felt throughout Harlow and the UK.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this very difficult time. We request that everyone remember them in their prayers."
He added: "At this particular time we have no further information regarding the causes of fire. The Muslim community is working very closely with the police to help in their investigations."
Dr Yvonne Barlow, Clinical Director at the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust described her colleague Dr Shakoor as "the kindest, gentlest person" she had ever met.
“He is universally respected and is an extremely popular member of staff," she said.
Melanie Walker, Chief Executive at PAH added: “The hospital is deeply saddened by the tragic circumstances which have occurred.
“Our thoughts are with Dr Shakoor and his family at this very difficult time.
“Our staff, including many colleagues and friends of Dr Shakoor have been offered support to deal with this terrible incident.”
The hospital has set up a Book of Condolence and plans to hold a multi-faith service in tribute to Dr Shakoor's family later this week.
A Facebook tribute page to the victims will also be set up by PAH staff, while Dr Shakoor's colleagues will place a floral tribute at the scene today.
"Everyone is distraught"
Three of the four children killed in Monday's fire attended Abbotsweld Primary School, which is located less than 40 yards from the family's home.
Speaking this afternoon, headteacher Lesley Lynn said staff and pupils were struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
"Everyone at the school is distraught to learn of the horrible tragedy that has hit the Shakoor family," she said.
"Sohaib, Muneeb and Rayyan were all pupils at the school and were intelligent and sociable children with a good sense of humour, good at sports and much loved by everyone.
"This is obviously a very distressing time for all our pupils and staff and we are working with specialist officers at Essex County Council who are assisting the school with the appropriate support needed to help staff and pupils come to terms with this.”
Councillor Stephen Castle, Cabinet Member for Education, Lifelong Learning, said Essex County Council had been providing support to staff and pupils at the school.
“My sympathies are with the family at this difficult time," he said.
“Essex County Council employs a range of measures to support all involved through incidents where employees, pupils and families are involved.
“The School has been contacted by an Educational Psychologist and the School Councillor has been on hand to provide intense support to pupils. Community and religious representatives have also offered support in these devastating circumstances.”
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