Friday 23 March 2018

Woman who started fatal fire in apartment 'refused to leave burning building without her cider'

Rachel Crawshaw pictured at Cork Circuit Court in relation to the unlawfull killing of John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36), at Granary Court, St Joseph’s Road, Mallow Pic Cork Courts Limited
Rachel Crawshaw pictured at Cork Circuit Court in relation to the unlawfull killing of John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36), at Granary Court, St Joseph’s Road, Mallow Pic Cork Courts Limited
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

A young woman high on alcohol and prescription medication who started a fire in an apartment complex which resulted in the death of two men refused to leave the burning building without her full bottle of cider.

A Cork Coroner's inquest heard that Rachel Crawshaw (30) was aggressive and abusive towards two gardai desperately trying to save her life by dragging her from the burning apartment complex.

Two gardai, Caitriona O'Sullivan and Liam Phillips, were hailed as heroes for risking their own lives to evacuate the Granary Court complex in Mallow, Co Cork in the early hours of March 13 2014 - and defying thick smoke and flames to drag Ms Crawshaw and another man to safety.

Coroner Dr Michael Kennedy said that but for their incredible courage further lives would undoubtedly have been lost.

Both gardai had to be hospitalised for smoke inhalation after the blaze.

At one point, Garda O'Sullivan revealed that Ms Crawshaw fought to try and get back into the smoke-filled building.

The young garda had to use her baton to force Ms Crawshaw to get back out of the complex for her own safety and that of others.

As she was being treated at the scene for the effects of smoke inhalation, gardai spotted that the intoxicated young woman also had a bottle of sleeping tablets tucked inside her bra.

As gardai and paramedics battled to save an unconscious man, Chris Palmer, also dragged from the burning complex, Ms Crawshaw attempted to intervene, shouting: "Leave him alone, leave him alone."

Dr Kennedy was told that Ms Crawshaw was jailed for ten years last October by Cork Circuit Criminal Court for manslaughter and arson.

She had pleaded guilty to a single count of arson at the Granary Court complex and to two manslaughter charges brought over the deaths in the fire of John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36).

Judge Sean O'Donnabhain was told the fire was started by Ms Crawshaw with a cigarette lighter in a third floor flat where she had been drinking with three men.

He described the young woman's actions as "hugely reckless."

The court heard she was a chronic alcohol and drug addict who had "a chaotic upbringing."

Ms Crawshaw had to be brought back to Ireland to face the charges from the UK on foot of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW).

Gardai O'Sullivan and Phillips found Ms Crawshaw and Christopher Palmer, the twin brother of John Palmer, unconscious in the complex at 12.10am that morning and dragged them to safety.

Mr Palmer, who is originally from Dublin, was unconscious, covered in soot and with dark-coloured foam at his mouth.

En route to Cork University Hospital (CUH) he stopped breathing and had to be revived by paramedics.

In a statement read out by Gardai to Dr Kennedy, Chris Palmer said Ms Crawshaw had been drinking in the apartment with him, his brother John and Greg Lonergan over the previous 24 hours.

"Rachel lost the rag which was usual for her after drink," Mr Palmer said.

"She started to smash up the apartment. I tried to stop her but it only made it worse."

Ms Crawshaw smashed a TV, Hifi unit and computer.

When the three men attempted to get her to calm down, she threatened them.

"She said she was going to burn the place down - that was her trademark," Mr Palmer told Gardai.

Gardai attended the apartment around 9pm on March 12 after receiving reports of broken windows and glass on the roadway outside.

John Palmer was found in the flat with cuts to his hand.

However, he refused to attend hospital.

No arrests were made as gardai warned the four flat occupants to reduce noise levels.

Several hours later, and after substantial additional quantities of alcohol, Ms Crawshaw took out a cigarette lighter and began starting fires in the flat.

Forensic expert Garda Kevin Sheehan said he found three sources or seats of fire in the apartment - by a bed, by a wardrobe and in the sitting room by a sofa.

The two men who died were found badly burned in the sitting room.

Mr Palmer told Gardai there was chaos in the apartment when the three men realised Ms Crawshaw had started fires.

"Panic set in around the apartment," he said.

"We tried to stop her but it was too late."

"I am being 100pc honest in that Rachel Crawshaw started fires in my apartment."

Because of the smoke and heat, gardai were unable to reach John Palmer and Greg Lonergan in the top floor flat.

The two men had to be recovered by Mallow Fire Brigade personnel wearing breathing apparatus.

Both had been badly burned in the fire.

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster told the inquest that both men died from shock due to burns in association with smoke inhalation and alcohol toxicity.

She said high levels of alcohol in the systems of both men, in combination with the ingestion of sleeping medication, would have left them very vulnerable to the effects of smoke inhalation.

The inquest was told that both would have been rendered unconscious before the flames reached them in the apartment.

The inquest returned a verdict which reflected the convictions in Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

The inquest jury returned recommendations that fire extinguishers be immediately refilled after use, that damaged fire alarm systems must be repaired immediately and that apartment complexes have emergency lighting systems to assist the work of gardai and fire brigade personnel.

The Granary Court complex had been the focus of an earlier fire on February 26 2014 which had damaged the fire alarm system.

Fire extinguishers used had yet to be refilled.

The fire alarm system was scheduled to be repaired on March 19 2014 - just six days after the fatal fire.

Greg Lonergan's wife, Sonya, said her family will never get over what happened to "my best friend."

"Greg was such a good man. He was a hard-worker and a really nice person," she said.

"This is just too hard to bear. It is hurting really bad - really deep in my heart.

"I knew her (Crawshaw) myself because she lived in the same terrace as me.

"I just cannot understand why she could do it. I will never understand it."

Sonya admitted that her loss was made all the more painful by the manner of Greg's funeral arrangements.

"He was 100pc burned to death - that is what I was told. We couldn't even get to see him in the coffin. He was my best friend in life."

"No matter what happened it wasn't ever going to bring Greg back."

Mr Lonergan had lived at a number of addresses in both Cork city and north Cork.

The Palmer twins hailed from Tymon North in Tallaght, Dublin but had been resident in north Cork for some time.

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