Wednesday 21 February 2018

Fatal school bus crash: court hears 'whole bus just flipped'

Ruari McKeown, a partner in Clara Cabs
Ruari McKeown, a partner in Clara Cabs

Declan Brennan

THE owners of a bus company and a vehicle testing firm have gone on trial in relation to a 2006 school bus crash in which one boy died.

Michael White (15) was left with “catastrophic injuries” and died after the school bus he was on went out of control and crashed near Clara, Co Offaly.


One passenger gave evidence that it the bus was titling to one side in the run-up to the crash and that she told the driver: “The bus is f***ed”.


It is alleged that in the days before the fatal accident school children heard a loud bang and reported the bus as tilting to one side but that no action was taken.


The owners of Clara Cabs, Raymond McKeown and his son Ruairi McKeown, both of River Street, Clara, Co Offaly face six charges of failing to maintain the 1989 Mercedes bus, a place of work, in a condition that was safe and without risk to health.


Two of these charge are that as a consequence of this failure Michael White suffered personal injury and died. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.


David O'Reilly, acting on behalf of O'Reilly Commercials Ltd of Ballinalach, Mullingar, Co Westmeath pleaded not guilty to four charges relating to failing to note or verify defects when they tested the Mercedes bus between August 5 and 6, 2005.


In detail these charges are failing to note and failing to verify as safe the modified rear suspension in the bus, failing to note the missing bolt in the right rear suspension spring of the bus, and failing to take account of a fracture in the chassis.


The offences come under the 1989 and 2005 Safety Health and Welfare at Work Acts.


Opening the State's case Caroline Biggs SC said that the bus had being tested by O'Reilly Commercials in 2005.  She said the jury will hear that a year later the back axle came off the vehicle during the fatal accident.


In the first day of evidence Stuart Coyne (22) told Ms Biggs that he was 15 years old in 2006 and was taking the McKeown’s bus as normal to Killina Presentation Secondary School in Rahan, Tullamore.


He said he sat down beside Michael White and that another boy was sitting in the alleyway because the bus was so packed.


He said the bus wasn't traveling fast and when it got to the bottom of a hill on the Bog Road outside of Clara he heard a “big loud bang”. He said the bus started shaking and going all over the place before going straight into the edge of the ditch.


He said he remembers “the whole bus just flipping”. He hit his head off the roof and got up in a state of shock. He squeezed his way out of the half open door and saw students and the bus driver on the road.


One girl was badly hurt and his sister told him that someone was underneath the bus. He said that when he looked around, “Michael White was the only one we couldn't see”.


He said the bus rattled all the time, was in poor condition and there was moss on the windows.


He told Diarmaid McGuinness SC, defending O'Reilly Commercial Ltd, that there was a really loud bang and “the back end of the bus completely dropped as if there was nothing there”.


He agreed that when he had previously experienced banging in the bus it was when the bus was driving over bumps in the road. He said: “The noise was louder when we went over a bump. The bus was in very poor condition no matter where we were”.


He said the driver, Gerard Buckley, was regarded as a slow driver and he had no issue with the way the bus was driven the day of the accident.


He agreed that it was a very rural road with several bumps, but if you knew the road you could slow down to avoid these. Other students gave evidence that the accident took place on a good part of the road before the bumpy part.


Mr White's cousin Laura Hackett said on the day before the crash she noticed that the bus was “completely tilted” towards the passenger side.


She said it was really noticeable and she told the driver: “Ger, the bus is fucked”. She said she was told it would be fixed in a few weeks.


She said the driver was a careful driver and never drove at speed but that bus was always over crowded. The trial continues.


Kayleigh Murray said that it was on the morning of the accident that she noticed the bus leaning to one side. She said that on the previous afternoon she had heard a bang as the bus came from the school and was driving over a bumpy part of the road


She told Kenneth Fogarty SC, defending Mr McKeown: “The bus was in shite. The bus was fairly broken down. I'm not a mechanic but it was tilting to one side”.


Fiachra Fallon said when the incident occurred the bus lurched and he saw the bus driver “fly across” the side of the bus. He said it was then upside down and the students were everywhere. He said he crawled out a broken window and saw Michael White's body.


He said the bus was always rattling and a few days earlier he heard a bang as if it had hit the road. He said the accident happened on a good part of the road which was perfectly level and straight.


Lisa Stewart, a cousin of the deceased, told Ms Biggs that she was 13 on the morning of the accident and she remembers the bus dropping and scrapping onto the ground. She described the bus as being very rattily and said there was moss growing inside the bus.


Lorcan Hyney described having to sit on his sports bag because there were no seats available when he got on the bus.


He said he heard a loud bang and saw the bus driver smashing into the door of the bus. He said the bus stopped dead and he heard screaming and shouting.


The court also heard that Ciara McKeown, a daughter of one of the accused, was a regular passenger on the bus but happened not to be on it that morning.

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