A NORTH-East member of the European Parliament and his councillor wife were being comforted by friends and neighbours last night after being struck by a Christmas tragedy.

An investigation is under way after a man in his 80s died in a fire at the Darlington home of Stephen and Cyndi Hughes.

The Northern Echo understands the victim was Mrs Hughes’ father, although he is yet to be formally identified.

Loading article content

Police and fire crews were called to a granny flat at the rear of the three-storey property, in Oakdene Avenue, in the West End of the town, at 8am on Christmas Eve.

Neighbours had raised the alarm when they smelled smoke coming from the building.

Fire crews discovered the elderly man’s body near a door.

No one else was injured in the fire and the Hughes family are now believed to be staying with friends.

Mr Hughes is a Labour MEP representing 2.5 million people in the North-East region, from Northumberland and Tyne and Wear, to Durham and the Tees Valley, in the European Parliament.

He is a member of the GMB union and has served as constituency secretary and election agent on behalf of the Labour Party.

His wife represents the Park East Ward on Darlington Borough Council for the Labour Party and was elected in 2003.

Last night, the leader of Darlington council, John Williams, said: “This is a devastating blow for the family, particularly at this time of year. The thoughts of all of us are with Cyndi, Steve and the children.”

Neighbouring properties had been evacuated by the time fire crews arrived at the couple’s home. Police and fire officers have launched an inquiry into the cause of the blaze, which was described as extensive.

Steve Wharton, of Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue, said: “We knew there was someone trapped at the time.

“Our crews got there and found evidence of an extensive fire downstairs. They quickly located someone in the property.

“Our thoughts are with the relatives at this very difficult time.”

Neighbours have been left shocked and saddened by the tragedy.

Friend and neighbour Steve Rose, former chief executive of Darlington Partnership, said last night: “I have been deeply moved by the way people living around this area have rallied to support the family at this terrible time.

“I would also want to pay tribute to the efforts of the fire service, who did a great job in reassuring people after the tragedy. What is important now is that the family’s privacy is respected.”

Another resident said: “It is very sad. It is a terrible day for it to happen.

“I saw the smoke coming out of the windows and from the back as well. There was quite a lot.

“There were three fire engines and an ambulance outside the house.”

Another neighbour said: “We heard the alarm going off and got out of the house.

“The fire crews came and did their job. It is very sad.”

Another resident said: “I could hear an alarm going off this morning – I thought it was intruder alarm, which happens on a pretty regular basis.

“Fairly shortly after, there were fire engines and I realised what was happening.”

Another added: “It is very shocking and tragic, particularly at this time of year. I can’t believe it has happened.

I am very sad for the family.”