'My facemask dislodged... it was like someone pressed a switch. I was five seconds from losing consciousness' - Fireman trying to rescue tragic Harris brothers
A toxic gas tragedy that claimed the lives of two brothers almost killed a fireman attempting to rescue them, an inquest heard.
Brothers Alan (45) and Stephen Harris (32), cousins of Irish soccer player Robbie Keane, were overcome by fumes while working in an underground sewer at Drumnigh Woods, Portmarnock, Co Dublin on June 10, 2015. They were recovered from the sewer and rushed to hospital but died of hypoxia due to toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide.
Alan Harris of Hazelbury Pk, Clonee, Dublin 15 died at Beaumont Hospital within hours. His brother Stephen Harris of Monasterboice Rd, Crumlin, Dublin 12 died two days later. They were conducting sewer works at a development of 145 houses built in 2004 when the incident happened.
Pumps engineer Gabriel Hoyle was a subcontractor working on the same job. He said Stephen Harris climbed down the chamber and was heard shouting for help saying ‘Alan, I can’t breathe.’ Mr Hoyle said he appeared disorientated but managed to safely exit the chamber.
When Mr Hoyle was leaving for lunch, the brothers planned to descend the 30ft pump chamber to clear out sewage. Before reaching his car, he heard shouts for help.
“Stephen was frantic. He was standing on the ladder shouting for Alan and then said, ‘lads help me, Alan’s after falling down.’ His voice was deteriorating as if he was being overcome. He was saying ‘please help me, help me get Alan,’” Mr Hoyle said.
He told Dublin Coroner’s Court that he shouted to Stephen telling him ‘get out now while you still can.’
“But he carried on down. The last thing I saw was him falling under the sewage at the bottom of the ladder,” Mr Hoyle said.
Fireman Ger Coughlan responded to the emergency call at 2.30pm. Wearing a breathing apparatus he climbed down the chamber into waist height sewage. He said there was water entering the chamber and the level was rising. His mask was displaced as he tried to lift one of the injured and he took a gulp of air.
“It was like someone pressed a switch, cutting off all my energy. My arms and legs were like lead. I was five seconds away from losing consciousness. I knew I had to get myself out or I wasn’t coming out,” Mr Coughlan said.
Dublin Fire Brigade updated its procedures following the incident to send specific equipment to similar calls. Additional confined space training has been introduced.
Autopsies carried out on the Harris brothers found both men died as a result of hypoxia, secondary to exposure to toxic concentrations of hydrogen sulphide.
The court heard they were wearing wader boots and rain jackets and that Stephen Harris was wearing a dust mask at the scene. Health and Safety Authority Inspector Frank Kerins said the job required specialist equipment in accordance with Confined Space Regulations including a gas detector, breathing apparatus and a pre-planned rescue system utilising a winch or hoist. T
he jury returned a verdicts of misadventure in relation to the deaths and recommended that public attention be drawn to the dangers of toxic gases arising from sewers. The jury recommended strict adherence to existing regulations and asked for confined workspace training to be emphasised and standardised.
In a statement read out by solicitor Bill Holohan after the inquest the family thanked all emergency services, particularly Mr Coughlan. “This has been a very difficult day for all members of the Harris family, relations and friends. They hope that some lessons will be learned from this tragic incident so that others will not have to suffer what they experienced.”