Sunday 18 August 2019

'I was in fear for my life...branches were flying through the air' - witness at scene of Storm Ophelia death

Michael Pyke, who was killed during storm Ophelia
Michael Pyke, who was killed during storm Ophelia

Conor Kane

A young man who was about to do “a good deed” by clearing a roadway at the height of Storm Ophelia last October was fatally injured by a limb from a wind-damaged tree, an inquest has heard.

Michael Pyke (31) from Ardfinnan in Co Tipperary suffered massive cranio-cerebral trauma when hit by the tree limb on a road at a time when there was a red weather alert in place throughout the country.

The coroner for the area, Paul Morris, hailed his “wholly altruistic” motivation for getting out of his car with a chainsaw with the intention of clearing the road in the townland of Ballybrado, outside Cahir, after 12 noon on October 16 of last year.

The jury in the inquest at Clonmel courthouse issued a recommendation, agreed by the Pyke family, that members of the public should stay at home when a red weather alert is in force and also that anyone operating a chainsaw should wear a hard hat.

Mr Pyke was not actually using his chainsaw when he was struck by a tree limb, but it was found beside him on the road where he lay fatally injured, about 100 metres from the road blockage.

The jury’s verdict was of accidental death, in line with the medical evidence given in a deposition by pathologist Dr Fergus McSweeney, that the deceased suffered “massive cranio-cerebral trauma” consistent with the impact from the limb of a tree damaged during Storm Ophelia.

Tributes were paid at the inquest to the efforts of the gardaí, fire service, county council staff and members of the public to safely remove Michael’s body from the scene, when conditions were extremely hazardous and at least five trees fell in the immediate vicinity while that operation was in progress.

Garda Paul Shanahan told the inquest he was on duty in the patrol car and was asked to go to the scene at Ballybrado at about 12.20pm. He met a David Ryan there, who told him the man was deceased. There were no signs of life and there was a chainsaw on the ground.

“There was a number of [tree] limbs down. He seemed to have parked his car back in a safe place. I would be of the opinion that, when the accident happened, he was on his way to clear a number of limbs that were on the road, about 100 metres ahead. A large branch possibly struck him. The chainsaw was cold and didn’t appear to have been used.”

Asked by the coroner if there were any lessons to be learned from the tragedy, the garda said: “He appears to have been trying to do a good deed and clear the road. Unfortunately, it was very dangerous at the time.”

Sergeant Brendan Franklin also attended the scene, which had become “inaccessible” because of falling branches and strong winds. “Conditions were hazardous and I had concerns for the safety of all emergency service personnel present.”

It was with the assistance of the fire service and Tipperary County Council staff that the gardaí were able to remove Mr Pyke’s body from the road.

Killian Foran said in a deposition that he was travelling from Ardfinnan to Ballylooby on the day of the storm, with his friend, when they came across a white Volkswagen Passat. As they slowed, they saw a man wearing a high-vis jacket lying on his back on the road. They got out of their car and went over to the man and saw he had suffered an injury to the left side of his head. He was white and the other man, James Denn, tried to talk to him but got no answer.

They waved down another car and one of the occupants checked the injured man for a pulse, but found none.

“We could hear trees starting to break around us,” Mr Foran said.

A local resident, David Ryan, said he went out of his house and met a woman who was “visibly upset” and told him there was a man lying on the road, who was dead. He called the emergency services and went to the scene, and the emergency personnel rang him back and asked him to check for a pulse. “There was none.”

Conditions were “very bad” at the time, with branches “flying through the air” because of the wind. “I was in fear for my own life while I was there.”

TJ Carroll, a member of the fire service who also worked at O’Donnell’s petrol station in Cahir, said Michael Pyke bought €6 worth of petrol between 11am and 12 noon that day. He later identified the victim’s body to the gardaí.

Mr Pyke left a partner, Nollaig, as well as his father Tony, three brothers and seven sisters. His mother Moira died 12 years ago.

Offering his condolences to the family, the coroner Paul Morris said Michael’s intentions on the day represented “volunteerism at its best”.

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