A BLAZE that killed a devoted couple after ripping through their farmhouse was probably started by a wood-burning stove, an inquest heard.
Francis and Madeline Dougharty, 90 and 86, had wished their family a happy Christmas just hours before their bodies were found by fire crews at their home.
An inquest heard that the loving couple were believed to be trying to escape their £760,000 property via the backdoor to flee the flames when they were overcome by the smoke.
West Sussex Coroner's Court in Crawley heard that their son had last seen them alive only hours before when he had helped his dad into bed, as he did most nights, before descending the stairs and leaving his mum reading her kindle.
He was woken the next morning by his wife who had been horrified to discover the farmhouse ablaze on an early Boxing Day morning walk.
The emergency services rushed to the scene when they were called at 9.10am but were unable to save the couple.
Mr Dougharty was a farmer who was still living in the farmhouse where he had been born, while Mrs Dougharty listed her occupation as farmer's wife.
When registering their deaths, their son, one of their four children, confirmed the couple had not retired from the family farm, where they farmed hay and turkeys.
Speaking at the time of their death, local resident Suzie Coe said: "We used to buy our hay from them.
"It is just an absolute tragedy. We knew them for 20 years. They were proper farmers, proper country folk. They were the heart of the community. I feel so sad for their children."
Coroner Bridget Dolan QC was told how the damage to Cattlestone Farm in West Chiltington, West Sussex, was so severe the roof collapsed and structural engineers deemed it unsafe for investigators to enter the majority of the property.
However, they were able to recover the bodies of the grandparents from near the back door of the property.
Ms Dolan QC read a report from Ian Wallace-Guy, a partner at Burgoynes insurance assessors, which concluded: "Mr Wallace-Guy felt that the likely cause of the fire was associated with the use of a wood-burning stove.
"It is possible that the fire occurred accidentally during the lighting of the stove but they could not have left the property due to their limited mobility.
"The severity of the damage is in keeping with the relatively late discovery of the fire."
Mr Wallace-Guy confirmed the couple were non-smokers and did not use candles in the house, but due to the damage to the farmhouse, investigators have never been able to pin down what started the fire.
However, the electrical items in the house were thought to be in good condition and of relatively low power, meaning that the wood burning stove was the most likely source of the fire.
A post-mortem found that Mr Dougharty had died due to smoke inhalation while Mrs Dougharty had suffered fatal burns and smoke inhalation.
Recording her verdict of accidental death for both Mr and Mrs Dougharty, Ms Dolan QC said: "I was sad to read about what happened to them. It is always very distressing to read about someone dying around Christmas time.
“They had celebrated Christmas with their family. They had not retired and they were farmers who loved the land and who were still working at that age and that was part of their lives.
“It is so sad to hear that they did in the house they had been in for all these years."
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