Tuesday 16 July 2019

Nicola Anderson: 'Harrowing details of fire at halting site prove too much for heartbroken families'

Aftermath: Garda forensic teams examine the scene of the fatal blaze. Photo: Collins photos
Aftermath: Garda forensic teams examine the scene of the fatal blaze. Photo: Collins photos
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

As they came to the point of identification, coroner Dr Myra Cullinane gently told the families seated in front of her the evidence would be very difficult.

They should feel free to leave the court room if they wished, she said. The families stayed as long as they could - but it was too heartbreaking and one by one, they quietly left their seats.

Harrowing images of the charred remains of the mobile home in which an extended family perished, amid the blaze at Carrickmines halting site in south county Dublin on October 10, 2015, were shown to the jury as the inquests opened on Monday.

Later, a diagram on the wall of the Dublin City Coroner's Court circled the positions from which the bodies had been recovered.

DNA was the main method used to identify them.

Thomas Connors (27), his wife Sylvia (30) and their sons Jimmy (5) and Christy (3) were recovered from the main bedroom.

Willie Lynch (25) and his pregnant partner Tara Gilbert (27), who were visiting the Connors family, were recovered with their daughters Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4) from the second smaller bedroom.

Little six-month-old Mary Connors, daughter of Thomas and Sylvia - who had initially been taken from her cot - perished when the blaze spread to an adjacent mobile home.

The only one to survive was Tom Connors (4) who was rescued by his uncle, John Keith Connors.

Deeply emotional, the teenager told the inquest how he had pulled Tom out of the smoke-filled cabin.

"I had Tom in my arms," he said. "He was trying to breathe. He was making choking noises."

John had climbed into the cabin through a smashed window but could not see because of the thickness of the black smoke.

He felt around on the bed but there was nobody there - however he found his brother Thomas lying on the floor and tried to lift him but lost any breath he had in the attempt.

When he found the body of his sister-in-law Sylvia, he tried to lift her too but was unable to do so.

His father had handed him a fire extinguisher to fight the blaze but he couldn't get it to work and on the urging of his father, left the mobile home.

"I knew I couldn't go back in again," John told the inquest.

Jim Connors Jr, the brother of victim Thomas Connors, said he had been at his brother's home that night drinking with the other adults.

Later, back at his own cabin on the site, he said he was woken by his wife Katie.

"I could see the flames from my back door," he said. He ran to his brother's home but "got hit by the flames".

With a wooden pallet as a ladder, he reached in and grabbed a child, baby Mary Connors, from her crib by the window.

She was "breathing noisily", another relation later said.

His sister Kathleen Connors McDonagh told the inquest she was handed the baby, wrapped in a pink blanket, and running to her own home, she placed the baby on the bed next to one of her own children and told him to mind her before she ran back to try to help rescue the other children from the blaze.

However, a short time later, her four-year-old son called to her and she saw smoke pouring out of her own front door, the fire having spread.

Paramedic Rebecca Mooney told the hearing that on arriving at the scene, she had immediately been handed a baby. She was in cardiac arrest, she said. She was later pronounced dead at Tallaght hospital.

Garda Shane Curran said a subsequent examination of the scene showed the right rear hotplate of the cooker held the "molten" remains of an aluminium chip pan.

Mechanical engineer Paul Collins later confirmed the hotplate had been turned up to the highest setting and the chip pan was the definite source of the fire.

The inquest heard there had been only a "tiny window" of opportunity for John Connors to enter the burning mobile home and rescue Tom Connors before the inferno had engulfed the dwelling place, and that he was lucky to survive.

Chartered fire safety engineer David O'Connor told the inquest how the mobile home had originally been a steel-lined security hut, modified by the owner.

The petroleum-based polystyrene insulation in the walls meant the temperatures would have been significantly greater than that of a normal house fire - it may even have reached temperatures of up to 650C, he said.

"It was off the charts," he said, describing it as being like "an articulated truck going on fire".

The halting site was technically exempt from fire regulations because it was an emergency facility, he said. However new safety guidelines have since been introduced, covering fire safety for all Traveller accommodation.

Irish Independent

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