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Feature: A look behind the doors of Gibson Court two years after the fatal fire
From the outside, the Gibson Court community is the picture of happiness with open grounds and people going about their daily business.
Behind the doors, the bright corridors, vibrant wallpaper and open lounge are inviting and staff and residents are exceptionally welcoming with smiling faces.
But once you scratch the surface, it becomes apparent that what happened at Gibson Court a little more than two years ago will stay with staff and residents forever.
On the evening of September 30 2011, a fire broke out in a first floor flat at the independent living block and claimed the life of 87-year-old grandmother Irene Cockerton.
Residents were evacuated wearing their pyjamas in the middle of the night and did not return to their homes in Manor Road North until July this year.
Although Mrs Cockerton has not been forgotten by residents and staff alike, it is clear those at the block want to focus on the future at the newly refurbished Gibson Court.
The development, owned by Peverel Retirement, is made up of 50 residents flat and a flat for the house manager and currently 29 flats are occupied, with eight more residents expected to move in before Christmas.
Less than six months after reopening, 36 flats will be filled leaving 14 empty in the property, just three more than the number unoccupied before the fire.
Of the occupants, 22 had lived at the property before the fire, but sadly in the interim, six former residents passed away.
Jayne Pelham, house manager, said most residents have been very happy about moving back in and are all keen to move on from the tragedy.
She said: “The main thing is they are back in the community as they have all been split up, so that is important.”
Sheila Sparks, 86, a resident at Gibson Court
One resident who is particularly glad to be back in her home is Sheila Sparks, 86, who had moved into Gibson Court about nine months before the fire.
Mrs Sparks said after the fire, she moved about eight times in 17 months, which she did not enjoy, at one point living in a care home with people with Alzheimer’s.
Mrs Sparks, who classes Gibson Court residents as a fiery bunch, did not speak much about what she remembered of the fire, but described it as “quite an experience”.
Relieved to be back in her home despite the history, Mrs Sparks was one of the first residents to move back to the block in July.
She said: “It is very safe here and we are very well looked after. Jayne has been wonderful to me. Everybody here is a character. There are some people who are working their way in gradually and we will have to get to know them.
“I am looking forward to socialising with everyone. I really missed the community.”
The refurbishment of Gibson Court commenced in January 2012 and on July 15 this year, the first of the residents moved back in to the property.
A typical flat at Gibson Court
Structurally the building has not changed, with facilities in the same place and flats the same size as they were previously.
The majority of damage was caused by smoke and water, meaning a lot of residents’ belongings could be salvaged, and only the area where the fire broke out had to be rebuilt.
Walking around Gibson Court, it feels cosy and homely, with residents given a say in every detail from wallpaper and carpets to door handles.
As part of the refurbishment, extra smoke alarms were fitted in each flat with one in each room and a heat detector in the kitchen. According to Ms Pelham, there are also smoke detectors in the ceiling to ensure residents safety.
Marina Golding, former chairman of the Gibson Court Residents Association, was keen to point out the new safety features.
She said: “It is the safest building in Surrey because it includes a much higher spec than is necessary.”
Each room is also fitted with a pull cord which sends alerts straight through to a device Ms Pelham carries with her at all times.
In addition, a new entryphone system allows residents to see who is at the door before letting them in, a particularly useful feature for those who are hard of hearing.
All these extra features really go to show how much consideration both Peverel and the residents association have put in to keep residents completely safe.
Being house manager, Ms Pelham also calls Gibson Court home. She said: “I work Monday to Friday nine to five and when I’m off, I switch my system to care line but I have chosen to be contacted if there is an emergency. It is much better like that.”
Although it is independent living, Ms Pelham said she continually does checks to make sure residents are ok and if she has not seen everyone before she goes off duty, she knocks on their doors.
Mrs Golding said: “The main thing here is elderly people are not on their own, they have community living. It is a brand new community and it is a wonderful location here in Hinchley Wood.”
Between the fire and the reopening, events were organised for residents to ensure they kept their close friendships and were updated with the progress of the refurbishment.
Mrs Golding said at times like Christmas, the house manager in Royston Court invited all of the Gibson Court residents to join in with activities so they could all be together and have been supported throughout the process by Reverend John Kronenburg at St Christopher’s Church.
Jayne Pelham, house manager, and Marina Golding, former chairman of the Gibson Court Residents' Association
There is still work to do at Gibson Court, with the garden landscaping due to take place in the spring and once complete, a bench and memorial tree will be planted in memory of Mrs Cockerton.
As my morning at Gibson Court comes to an end, Ms Pelham sums up what her job is all about.
She said: “I do love my job. I knew it would be a challenge but I was so looking forward to it. They [the residents] are all wonderful people and they all have a story to tell.
"They have played an important part in our society and have done some amazing things in their lives.
"I think if you enjoy what you’re doing, you will do well and I think a smile makes all the difference."
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