Saturday 20 January 2018

'What happened today is not a coincidence' - coroner questions why no witnesses show at fire death inquest

Destroyed house in Macroom and inset Kenny 'Kenneth' Relihan
Destroyed house in Macroom and inset Kenny 'Kenneth' Relihan
Noreen McAuliffe was the sole survivor of a house fire in Macroom County Cork, which claimed the lives of her youngest child Kenneth (26) and family friend Noel O’Mahony (64).
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

A CORONER adjourned the inquest into the death of two men in a tragic Cork fire after querying if there was a concerted effort by critical witnesses not to attend.

Cork coroner Frank O'Connell adjourned the inquest into the death of Kenneth 'Kenny' Relihan (26) and Noel O'Mahony (62) after expressing concern that the only key witnesses present were Gardai, Macroom Fire Brigade officers and Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster.

No lay witnesses attended.

Gardai and Macroom Fire Brigade officials believed the fire on May 2 2015 was accidental and started in the downstairs kitchen from a chip pan which had been put on the electric cooker.

Noreen McAuliffe was the sole survivor of a house fire in Macroom County Cork, which claimed the lives of her youngest child Kenneth (26) and family friend Noel O’Mahony (64).
Noreen McAuliffe was the sole survivor of a house fire in Macroom County Cork, which claimed the lives of her youngest child Kenneth (26) and family friend Noel O’Mahony (64).

However, Mr O'Connell expressed concern that none of the critical witnesses of events at 47 St Colman's Park in Macroom that morning were present.

"I am not going to hear this case today and serve witness summonses on these people."

"There is a general non turn-up. What happened today was a concerted thing. It is not a coincidence."

"I am going to adjourn it and issue witness subpoenas. It is not a coincidence that everybody just didn't turn up."

"This is a very important exercise in the public interest. I don't think it is a coincidence. Practically all of the lay witnesses did not turn up. It may have arisen out of fear or concern."

"But this is an essential exercise in the public interest to.... allay any rumour or suspicion."

Mr O'Connell said it was clear that people at the fire scene had behaved "heroically" in trying to save the two men.

"No one will be held up to any odium here. There is no reason whatsoever why they couldn't attend."

Amongst those who did not attend the inquest at Macroom Courthouse was the sole survivor of the house fire, the person who raised the alarm, the young man who tried heroically to break into the burning house to save the trapped men and various neighbours who witnessed the fire.

Inspector Brian Murphy confirmed that everyone involved was formally notified of the inquest.

Mr O'Connell was informed that members of both the Relihan and O'Mahony families were in court though none were Garda witnesses.

John O'Mahony and Edel McAuliffe, who are related to the two deceased, said it was unfortunate the inquest will now have to be resumed in January.

"I can understand it. It is fine. People are not used to these kind of things. They did their best on the night it happened. I want to thank them for that and say I admire them (for their heroism)," Mr O'Mahony said.

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster confirmed that both men died from acute carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation.

The body of Mr Relihan was discovered in a downstairs hallway.

Mr O'Mahony was found in an upstairs bedroom.

Both had also suffered burn injuries.

Mr O'Mahony's death was further linked to the fact he suffered from coronary heart disease.

Macroom Fire Brigade's Commander Kevin Kingston told the inquest that when units arrived at the scene at 4am they saw smoke and flames pouring from the windows and doors of the terraced property.

When it was safe to do so, four firemen - Paul Lynch, Ian Wiseman, Jerry O'Leary and Aidan O'Driscoll - entered the property wearing breathing apparatus.

Neighbours had helped a third occupant of the house to escape by jumping from an upstairs window.

But heat, flames and smoke had foiled several courageous neighbours who had tried to force their way into the blazing house to rescue the trapped duo.

Garda Patrick O'Leary, who attended the scene, heard neighbours shouting.

"(They were shouting) He is at the window, he is at the window (Mr O'Mahony). I was hoping against hope someone was alive in there. But in my heart I doubted that it was possible," he said.

"But I could see no signs of life. There were sounds but it was the cracking and popping of the structure as it burned."

The fire brigade officials eventually managed to get Mr O'Mahony and Mr Relihan from the badly damaged property.

Both were pronounced dead by Dr Peter Cronin a local GP who knew both men.

Commander Kingston said he believed the kitchen was the source of the fire.

"From my 18 years in the fire service my belief is that the seat of the fire was in the kitchen," he said.

Garda Keelan O'Keeffe said a forensic examination indicated that the likely source of the fire was a chip pan on the electric cooker.

"I noticed that there was an open saucepan with a chip basket on the cooker," she said.

It was also confirmed that the fire which started by the cooker had burned a hole in the ceiling directly overhead.

The coroner ruled that the inquest will resume on January 24 next with witness summonses to be issued for everyone involved.

"No one should have anything to be concerned about. Some people clearly made heroic efforts to save the people trapped in the fire," he said.

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