British bomb disposal expert, 57, died handling WWII explosives

British bomb disposal expert, 57, killed in an explosion in the Soloman Islands during mission to make Pacific nation safe from left over WWII explosives

  • Stephen ‘Luke’ Atkinson, 57, died in a bomb explosion on the Solomon Islands
  • Mr Atkinson was a bomb disposal expert handling Second World War equipment
  • Dad-of one and colleague Trent Lee, 40, were both killed on September 20, 2020

A British bomb disposal expert died in an explosion on a Pacific Island while handling Second World War explosives, an inquest heard.

Stephen Atkinson, 57, was killed along with Australian colleague Trent Lee while working with unexploded bombs at their accommodation on the Solomon Islands, the hearing was told.

The pair were working for a humanitarian aid NGO to map unexploded munitions across the islands – the scene of heavy fighting involving Japanese and Allied forces towards the end of World War Two. 

The device went off in their home in the capital Honiara on September 20 last year, the inquest heard.

Former soldier Stephen ‘Luke’ Atkinson, 57, was killed when a wartime device he found exploded in his flat in the Solomon Islands on September 20 last year

Island detectives later found unexploded Second World War bombs at the blast site

Mr Atkinson, who was also known as Luke, worked in the Solomon Islands and neighbouring Palau as a programme manager at non-governmental organisation Norwegian People’s Aid.

The Solomon Islands, which lie to the east of Papua New Guinea, was a key World War Two battleground in the South Pacific due to its proximity to Australia.

As a result the islands are littered with thousands of ageing explosives that still pose a danger to civilians more than 70 years later.

The inquest into Mr Atkinson’s death at Eastbourne Town Hall on Thursday, October 21, heard that he suffered damage to his ribs, throat and upper body in the explosion that went off at around 7.30pm. He later died in the National Referral Hospital in Honiara.

Police inspector Clifford Tunuki said in the aftermath of the accident that several other unexploded bombs were also found in the apartment.

Giving evidence at the hearing, his friend Ian Hird, told the court that Mr Atkinson was injured after an explosive he was handling detonated.

The dad-of-one worked for the United Nations as well as the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) where he would find unexploded ordnances and map them out for the police.

Mr Hird said: ‘He put the safety of others first and took his responsibility very seriously.’

Mr Atkinson, who was born in Singapore to a concert pianist from New Zealand and a doctor from Ireland, was well-travelled and lived in countries including Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

He was brought up in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and educated in Frewen College, Northiam, East Sussex.

East Sussex Coroner Alan Crazegave recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.

Mr Craze said: ‘There is a son that is going to have to live with this.

‘I think that in many ways we can call this an accident. I shall record a conclusion of misadventure.’

Mr Hird, who met Mr Atkinson while studying, added: ‘Luke loved Africa and always had a great affinity for the continent.’

He moved to what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe – formerly called Rhodesia – when he was 17-years-old to work as a park ranger.

Dad-of-one Mr Atkinson worked for the United Nations as well as the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) where he would find unexploded ordnances and map them out for the police

Mr Hird told the inquest: ‘Luke was very well-read, bright and had intelligence. He gained a reputation for being innovative.

‘He adored his son, who is now 18, and did everything possible to support him. He was a great friend and storyteller.

‘He worked hard on his friendships and worked hard to stay in touch with people he had met throughout his life.’

In the wake of the accident the NPA’s activities on the Solomon Islands were temporarily put on hold while the circumstances were investigated.

Henriette Killi Westhrin, NPA’s secretary general, said at the time: ‘This is a tragic accident.

‘We are devastated by what has happened, and for the loss of two good colleagues. Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to their families, relatives and staff.’

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