A COUNCIL arts officer choked back tears yesterday as she told an inquest jury of the scene after an inflatable artwork rose into the air, killing two women.

Jo-Anne Simpson was working for the now-defunct Chester-le-Street District Council in 2006 and arranged for London artist Maurice Agis’s Dreamspace V to visit the town on an Arts Councilfunded national tour after reading a magazine article about him.

On the second day of the seven-day exhibition at Riverside Park in July of that year it broke from its moorings with tragic results.

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Mother-of-two Claire Furmedge, 38, of Chester-le- Street, and 69-year-old Elizabeth Collings, of Seaham, County Durham, fell from the plastic artwork, suffering severe injuries. Others were also injured including threeyear- old Rosie Wright of Langley Park, near Durham.

Maurice Agis, 77, of Bethnal Green, London, faced two counts of manslaughter but a jury failed to reach a verdict after a trial at Newcastle Crown Court last year.

He admitted failing to ensure the safety of the public and was fined. He died in hospital in October.

Mrs Simpson told how she got a call after the accident.

“We were driving from Pity Me and we were being passed by police and ambulances.

“When we got there I just can’t describe it. The structure was in pieces and people were crying, shouting, panicking.”

Mrs Simpson told the inquest that the artist and Brouhaha International, which was organising the tour, were meticulous and careful.

But she told Gary Furmedge – Claire’s husband – who is representing the families at the inquest – that only Mr Agis checked the system of ropes and pegs holding Dreamspace to the ground but that no one from the council had carried out a check.

She said she had asked officers at other councils that had hosted Agis artworks if they had had safety problems, but she was unaware of the accident in Travemubnde, northern Germany, in which a previous Agis inflatable lifted off, injuring several people.

The exhibition was supported by the town’s Safety Advisory Group, then a new organisation set up to make recommendations on the safety aspects of events.

Mrs Simpson said the group – made up of council, police and fire officers – did not ask about the anchorage system when she made a presentation on the planned exhibition.

The inquest, at Chester-le- Street Magistrates’ Court, continues today.