Firefighters frantically searched rubble for signs of life after Brandon house explosion, murder trial hears

Four firefighters told a Manitoba courtroom Tuesday about the first frantic moments after an October 2019 explosion at a house in Brandon.

The four testified in Court of Queen’s Bench in Brandon at the trial for Robert Hughes, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Betty. Her body was found after an explosion at the couple’s home in Brandon’s Green Acres neighbourhood. 

Sean Klemick told the court on Tuesday that he was one of the first firefighter-paramedics at the scene. He was assigned to staff the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services’ rescue unit that night.

“At the rear of the house, the wall was blown off,” he said. “We could see into the kitchen from the yard. We were looking in there, but with all the debris from the attic, we could not see.” 

Firefighters and Manitoba Hydro crews had to dig a hole more than a metre (four feet) deep to crimp off the gas line before a search of the property could begin, court was told. 

Frantic rescue 

Court heard that Hughes seemed “dazed” after being pulled from the rubble. 

“I could see a pair of legs inside the house, inside the door,” said Robbie Brown, another firefighter-paramedic who testified on Tuesday. 

“I called out to him and said, ‘What are you doing in the house?’ and didn’t get an answer,” he said. “He looked kind of dishevelled a little bit.”

Brown, Klemick and the two other firefighters all testified that the man had cuts on his forearms and was asked several times if anyone else was in the house.

“We were quite surprised to find that anyone was actually in that house and that they walked out,” Brown said. 

Robert Hughes is on trial in connection with the death of his wife, Betty Hughes. (Betty Hughes/Facebook )

“We asked if there was anyone else in the house. Initially, he said it didn’t matter,” testified Klemick. “We explained it did matter, if we did need to search for anyone.”

Hughes said his wife was inside, and firefighters asked him where.

“He said ‘She’s already dead,'” Klemick testified.

Klemick said he and another firefighter made their way to the back of the house once more to try to find Betty, but they couldn’t get all the way into the kitchen due to the debris. 

“We could see where there was a body in the kitchen on the floor,” he said. “All we could see was the legs. The rest was buried under insulation.… We couldn’t safely access the victim. 

“We tried calling out to the victim. We tried seeing if there was any signs of life and we couldn’t see any signs of life.”

Brown testified that the firefighters had reason to suspect Hughes had tried to harm himself.

“I asked him, ‘Were you trying to hurt yourself?’ or something to that effect, and he said ‘yes,'” Brown testified.

Investigator testifies

Earlier Tuesday, a former fire investigator testified that the blast was determined to be intentional.

Kevin Oman told the court that it wasn’t possible to survey the extent of the damage on the main floor of the home, due to structural concerns created by the blast.

However, it was determined the blast started in the basement utility room, with the shock wave spreading outward.  

“[It was] pretty strong to be able to push walls and push items from a house out into the street — move an entire picture window over top of a car, break floor joists and that sort of thing,” testified Oman, a former investigator with the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Brandon police charged Robert Hughes, 63, with second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Betty, also 63, in 2019. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Oman said it was the first explosion he had investigated, a fact defence lawyer Saul Simmonds focused on in cross-examination, arguing some of the diagrams of the home appeared inaccurate and not enough data collection was done. 

Simmonds also suggested to Oman that the explosion itself may have been an accident. 

“You’re jumping to conclusions everywhere,” Simmonds said of Oman’s report on the fire. 

The jury trial is being presided over by Justice Scott Abel.

It began on Monday with 14 jurors, but Abel announced to the jury Tuesday morning that one of the jurors had been dismissed prior to court resuming. The trial will continue with the remaining jury of eight women and five men.   

A DNA expert and a pathologist are expected to testify when it continues Wednesday.