'I shouted 'Lads, are you OK?' but there was no reply' - Teen describes harrowing moment he survived car crash which killed his friends
A young man has described the moment he realised he had survived a car crash which had killed his two friends.
Thomas 'TJ' McCormack was a back-seat passenger in the crash which claimed the lives of his two friends, Mark Hutcheson and Andrew Gass, both aged 17.
The friends died when their car struck a tree in Co Armagh earlier this year, an inquest heard.
The pair died on the Cladymilltown Road, between Markethill and Newtownhamilton in an area known as Fews Forest, on January 21.
The court heard how the two lifelong friends were together during their final moments as Andrew lost control of his Vauxhall Astra on a left-hand bend, among them a 17-year-old back seat passenger who miraculously survived.
Harrowing details of the moments leading up to the crash were outlined by Mr McCormack.
He described weather conditions as "bad", with heavy fog and intermittent rain.
Both Andrew and Mark were wearing their seatbelts, he said.
Mr McCormack said that the vehicle was being driven "fast", at a speed he estimated to be between 60 and 70mph.
Recalling the moment that the collision occurred, Mr McCormack said Andrew had looked momentarily to his left, before making contact with a grass verge and trying to correct the direction of travel of the car.
"We go towards the tree," the witness continued.
"I just close my eyes and ball up when I see the tree."
Asked by the coroner to explain what happened next, the witness said: "I open my eyes. I can see two seats and the roof. I shout: 'Lads, are you OK?'.
"There is no reply. I climb out the back window, jump into the field, with the car hanging over the bank.
"I tap the roof to see if there's any sign. Then I ring the police, the ambulance, the fire and rescue."
In his findings, Mr McGurgan stated the cause of death for Andrew Gass to be bruising and laceration of the brain, and fractures to the skull.
Mark Hutcheson's death was due to head injury as a result of a road traffic collision, the coroner concluded.
The coroner issued a hard-hitting plea to young drivers to exercise "extreme caution" on the roads.
Patrick McGurgan was speaking at Armagh Courthouse after listening to heartbreaking testimony from the mothers of Mark Hutcheson and Andrew Gass.
On the morning of the crash Andrew's mother said he had shouted down the hallway: "I'm away."
"I said 'take care', the same as I did every morning," she recalled.
Of the moment she learned her son had died in a road accident, Mrs Gass said: "My world fell apart. I couldn't believe it was our lad and I couldn't think straight."
Describing Andrew as "the life and soul" of the family home, Mrs Gass said her son was "full of life and full of devilment", and added that since his death the family's lives had changed completely.
"Our Sunday afternoons were always full of fun before Andrew died," she said.
"Now there is no laughter on Sundays any more. His sister and brother miss him so much. The house is so quiet without him."
Mrs Gass said he had passed his driving test just 12 days before the tragedy, but he had been regularly driving tractors prior to that.
Both Mark and Andrew were apprentice welders and had been chosen to represent the college at a skills competition in Portadown that morning, along with classmate Thomas 'TJ' McCormack, a back-seat passenger on the day of the accident.
On the morning of the crash Mark had been picked up by Andrew, and the pair travelled to collect TJ in Newtownhamilton, before travelling to the competition.
Mrs Hutcheson was at work in Dungannon when she received a text message from her daughter to say she had been informed of a serious road accident involving "a person by the name of Gass".
Explaining her frantic attempts to make contact with her son, Mrs Hutcheson told the court: "I had Mark's phone set up to track where he was and when I tracked it, the phone came up as being at Cladymilltown Road… I called Mark's mobile and it went straight to answerphone."
She recalled the heartbreaking moment husband John told her of her son's death.
"I felt total devastation," Mrs Hutcheson said. "Since Mark's death, coping has been hard for us all. I haven't been able to return to work yet.
"John continues to farm. The farm was to be Mark's.
"It is hard to know what will happen long-term, now that he is gone."
Extending his "sincerest condolences" to the Hutcheson and Gass families, Mr McGurgan said: "Young drivers need to know that speed kills. Inattention kills.
"I hope that, through the media, young drivers will read about this tragedy and exercise extreme caution on the roads as a result, particularly in the run-up to Christmas."