I could hear the children saying 'don't put me in the ground Dad'
EXCLUSIVE: Couple tell of heartbreak after car crash claims three of their children
BABY Torben is chewing the end of a pencil.
"Don't eat the rubber," whispers his father, Brian. He gently eases the gooey stub out of his mouth. Torben doesn't protest. His eyes are so innocent and blue they're almost a cliche. They are the eyes of a vulnerable, inquisitive six-month-old. They don't betray the unimaginable horror they have witnessed.
On July 16, Torben's mum, Maria, strapped the infant and his siblings Soren, 11, Saoirse, 9 and Connor, 3, into their car for a short drive to a playdate with friends from Lendum School, in North Jutland. The O'Shea family, who live in Australia, were on holiday in Maria's native Denmark. Brian, who is from Dalkey, Co Dublin, was not in the car. He was at home with the children's grandfather.
The family were used to driving long distances on outback roads, watching out for errant kangaroos and other hidden dangers. They knew better than to distract their mum when she was behind the wheel. They were quiet and well-behaved: their thoughts on the following day's outing to a fun park.
Baby Torben was directly behind Maria in the seven-seater. The passenger seat was empty. The two eldest kids were in the second row. It was around 10am, and the sun was shining. Maria went to take a left turn, there was a "massive" bang and the airbag was pressed against her face. A Mitsubishi Grandis had ripped into her children, tearing their lives asunder and macerating their Citroen Berlingo.
"It was an ordinary day. We had breakfast at dad's. Brian had work to do so I took the kids out to give him some peace," Maria, 39, says. "We were going to do family stuff in the afternoon. The next day we were going to a fun park – it was the highlight of the children's holiday. I was going to drop the two big kids off to friends to play, and see my friend to organise the day at the fair.
"I checked that the kids were strapped in. I even stopped the car to double-check. I had no sense that we were in any danger. I looked, I didn't see anybody. The next thing I know, I am crawling around looking for my children. My glasses had been thrown off."
As a country GP in Australia, Maria had attended car crashes before. Her training and instincts kicked in. She began the task of trying to resuscitate her fatally-injured children. She established that Torben was all right, then moved on to the next child. She couldn't find her eldest son, Soren. He had been flung from the wreckage into a ditch.
"A trauma nurse was on site straight away," says Brian, 45. "Maria controlled the crash site until the paramedics arrived. She dialled my number, threw the phone at someone and told them 'Tell him to come'.
"I had to go to a neighbour's to borrow a car. I came over a hill and could see smoke 5km away. When I got there, the authorities wouldn't let me near the accident.
"Fifteen minutes went by and they said 'We're going to take you to your wife'. There was physically nothing wrong with her. She was sitting on the side of the road. I thought 'OK, where are the rest of them? Where's the baby?' They couldn't tell me – a helicopter had just taken off.
"They brought us to the hospital by ambulance. On the way, we were told that the other three had gone. After tests, they discovered that Torben had a broken leg. I was allowed to bring him to Maria. Then we had to identify our children.
"As Torben was injured, we stayed overnight in the children's ward. The following day the police came to interview Maria. They said that, as part of Danish legal procedure, they would have to charge her with involuntary manslaughter. They were very kind. One of the guys had been at the site. They didn't want to do it."
It had been the worst crash in living memory in Denmark. Maria gave her version of events. She said she turned left, didn't see anything, there was a bang and then silence.
"Later, the police reports came out saying that Maria had overlooked the oncoming driver who was travelling at 80km – within the speed limit," says Brian. "It was said time and again without any investigation. They advised the Australian and Irish press that this was the case. Their spokesman was quoted in the Irish Times saying that the driver, Lasse Burholt, 39, was not at fault in any way."
The second stage of the family's nightmare had begun. Not only had Maria survived a crash which killed her children, she was now being held solely responsible for it.
"There were suggestions in the Danish media that she was an Australian housewife who didn't know which side to drive on and was distracted by the kids. Maria grew up in that area and knows the roads well. We drive hundreds of kilometres in Australia in relatively dangerous conditions. We have a higher sense of awareness and road safety over there. She is an excellent driver. The kids knew how to behave in a car.
"In Ireland, people thought she had just pulled out in front of a vehicle and it was her fault."
The distraught parents had to wait four weeks for the crash report to be finalised. Even now they haven't been given a physical copy by the police, despite requests. Reports in the Danish media indicate that the police report says that Mr Burholt was travelling "significantly" faster than 80kmph, the speed limit.
"The police told me over the phone that he had been driving at 125km, plus or minus 10 per cent. We had to wait a month to hear this," says Brian. "It was torture. Burholt had every opportunity to let us know he was speeding. The sole responsibility for the death of our children lay on Maria's head for four weeks."
Maria has heard nothing from Mr Burholt since the crash. Brian received a Facebook message from the self-described "inspirator" after he was reinterviewed by police following the release of the crash report. While sympathetic, it expressed concern over negative comments Brian had made about him in the Danish press.
"I challenge Lasse Burholt to place himself, for one second, in Maria's shoes," says Brian. "Imagine waking up with the feeling that you are considered solely responsible for your children's deaths. Imagine Maria looking into my eyes and wondering if I think she is to blame."
The couple say they want to correct what they believe are erroneous reports that laid the blame solely at Maria's door.
Like Maria, Mr Burholt is now in a legal limbo. Journalist Thomas Norgaard Andersen, who reported the story for BT newspaper, says the police have moved very slowly on the case.
"They will decide whether, or not, to charge Maria and Lasse Burholt with involuntary manslaughter next week," he told the Sunday Independent.
"I have not seen the crash report. The police have declined to release it."
In the meantime, Maria is unsure of her situation. "When the police came to the hospital, I was sure they had charged me. They later told the Australian Embassy that I hadn't been charged. I have heard nothing officially to tell me otherwise," she says.
Her nightmare continues: there are constant reminders. "I keep hoping that someone is going to wake me up and go 'you've overslept, you're due to go to work' and that it's over.
"You go to the shop and you see something, maybe a type of juice that Saoirse would have liked, or think 'I'll get more carrots' because Connor would like them, and then you realise ... "
The O'Shea family live in Western Australia, where Brian runs his own business, Ecofriendly Solutions Pty Ltd. He moved there in 1994; Maria in 1995. She used to walk past his house going home from work. He decided to ask her out. They married and set up their home in the town of Pemberton where they were raising their kids when the unimaginable struck.
"We tried to show them how to live as good people," says Brian.
"The thing I am most traumatised by is the future which is now gone. As a dad, I would have been able to help them put in a new kitchen when they bought their first house. I would have given Saoirse away at her wedding. . . held a grandchild. All these things have been taken from Maria and I.
"Soren, Saoirse and Connor were all amazing, individually, and together. Soren was always our rock. He was the best child you could ask for, with a huge appetite for life and food. He was huge of heart, huge of spirit and huge of love.
"Saoirse was an angel of a child. She was happy and inquisitive. Once we figured out that she was deaf, Maria sprang into gear. The result was an incredible effort from both of them.
"Connor was our little ragamuffin. He was full of fun, always off fighting dragons as a knight or choosing some superhero to be for the day. I'll forever miss my 'knusas' – his hugs, which were frequent, his love which was infinite, and his smile which melted my heart."
Friends have tried their best to deal with the tragedy. The townsfolk of Pemberton had a memorial in the school. Businesses shut down and there were flowers on the street. In Dalkey, mourners crowded the village church.
"You get all this sympathy," says Maria, "but you wonder if they're thinking 'did she do this'?"
The couple are doing their best to cope, from day to day. Night-time brings its own problems.
"Over the past week I've started to have dreams coming through," says Brian. "Not nightmares, but dreams that create a connection, which is nice.
"I wake up very confused. It's as if they were right there and you think that maybe there's a small chance that this is all a mistake. Then you wake up. People tell you this stuff makes you stronger, but ... We are very strong in our personal relationship and that's a huge help."
They will need to be strong for each other when they finally face the journey home to Australia.
"I renovated our house before we came on holidays," says Brian. "The kids had picked their colours. It was all for them. It was custom built for them and the idea of going back to it is not a very happy one."
There will also be the physical distance between them and their children's remains to deal with. They are buried in Denmark beside Maria's mother.
"We had the Month's Mind on Booley Beach in Wexford," says Brian. "We lit a bonfire like we used to with the kids. All their cousins were there. I cut three boats from three trees and floated them out on the water with firelogs. We said our farewell that way. Then we lit Chinese lanterns.
"When we were putting the children in the ground, I could hear them say 'Don't put me down there, dad'. So on Booley Beach, I got to do something the way they would have wanted. If they were sitting up on a cliff watching us, they would have liked it."
The grieving couple – who say they can not be helped themselves – plan to channel all the goodwill they have received. "We are setting up a children's fund, The Three Musketeers, to help kids in developing countries. It will be in honour of our children."
As the interview draws to a close, Brian who has shown immense dignity and strength throughout, falls suddenly silent. Maria, who is equally dignified, reaches for his hand.
Torben is on her lap. In contrast to his untroubled, infant eyes, hers betray the horror they have witnessed.
"I was scared that Brian was going to blame me. I was afraid he would feel that I had been irresponsible with the children. Thank God he never has. I'm eternally grateful for that. But, you know, I kept thinking 'everyone else does'.
"I wondered if he had something niggling at the back of his mind. Did he think 'she didn't pay attention? Did she risk something?'And you haven't." She is looking at her husband.
"There was never any doubt in my mind," he says.