When his daughter fell overboard on a cruise Paul O'Brien's life went into downward spiral, writes Liam Collins
Dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, Paul O'Brien looks like any other casual/smart businessman coming out of the Gresham Hotel in central Dublin.
"Everything is gone; I am like everybody else in this country, the banks are moving in, it's just paperwork now," says the one-time multi-millionaire window-maker and property developer almost nonchalantly in his Dublin drawl.
But he's not quite like everybody in one sense at least. O'Brien had to endure the trauma of losing his 15-year-old daughter on a dream-cruise that ended in disaster.
The night his daughter Lynsey fell overboard from a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea on January 4, 2006, marked O'Brien's descent into madness, a series of attempted suicides, and a bizarre attempt to become a "human torch" in the foyer of RTE in Montrose.
This was interspersed with long periods in St Patrick's psychiatric hospital and the disintegration of his business and family life.
"When Lynsey fell off that ship we all fell off that ship, my life also fell apart," he says after writing a memoir.
"I was at breaking point and it took Lynsey's death to push me over the edge," says O'Brien, like any normal businessman taking coffee in the Gresham last week. "My life went into a spiral, it exploded and basically my mind wasn't functioning, I couldn't cope," he says.
Now he has written a harrowing account of his life, giving his version of the nightmare cruise undertaken by three families, the party making up 27 people in all.
"Ironically I never wanted to go on a cruise ship. We had planned to go to a beach resort in Dubai, but it was booked out, so we booked that instead."
O'Brien is a self-made man. He began working for himself at the age of 18 making aluminium windows. He soon built it into a huge operation, churning out loads of cash. After falling foul of the Revenue Commissioners for not paying his taxes, he employed Sean Ardagh, later a Fianna Fail TD, as his accountant. He invested his money in property -- 22 different properties around Dublin, including a house in Anglesey Road in Ballsbridge, where he turned a profit of €600,000 in a couple of months. He also had a villa and a rental apartment in Spain.
His family home in Terenure, south Dublin, was once valued at over €4m. But behind the millionaire lifestyle and the lavish holidays in Spain and Orlando was a dysfunctional man who tried to commit suicide in the months leading up to the ill-fated cruise by taking an overdose.
"In November I took an overdose of Ativan, but there was not enough tablets to kill me," he says. "On another occasion I got seriously intoxicated and tried my best to throw myself under a car."
The O'Brien family left Ireland on December 27, 2005, for a holiday that would take in the Porto Vino Hotel in the grounds of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, followed by a cruise leaving from Fort Lauderdale.
The cruise ship didn't take cash so each passenger got a plastic card, like a credit card, which they used to buy anything not included in the package.
"On the fourth night at sea, I was in the casino playing blackjack. Kelley (another daughter) came to me and informed me that Lynsey had been served alcohol at one of the bars. I was in shock when I heard this. Lynsey was still only a child of 15."
That night in a period of 45 minutes his 15-year-old daughter was served 10 drinks in a bar on the cruise ship, two Sex on the Beach, four Woo Woos, two vodka and mixers, a shot of vodka and liqueurs. She didn't drink them all, but she did consume enough to be bleary eyed by the time her father was alerted.
"When I saw Lynsey I asked her how much she had drunk, but I got no reply. Her face was just blank and she looked white as if she wanted to get sick. I brought her over to one of the settees in the bar and told her to lie down on her side in case she felt sick."
After calling the ship's doctor and giving the duty officer "a strong piece of my mind" he brought Lynsey down to her cabin, which adjoined the one he was sharing with his wife Sandra. Both had balconies for the sea views.
"I put Lynsey to bed. Sandra, came in and told her she would deal with her in the morning. I kissed Lynsey goodnight and I said goodnight to Imelda (her younger sister) and gave her a kiss. Kelley had walked ahead of me to our adjoining room to get a phone charger. I was only in my bedroom when I heard Imelda screaming loudly: 'Daddy, daddy, daddy, Lynsey has fallen overboard.'
"I ran into the room and to my horror and disbelief, Lynsey was not there. I looked out on the balcony and I could see a chair on its side and vomit on the handrail. I was in shock and disbelief. The first thing that came into my head was that Lynsey was a fantastic swimmer. I turned and ran through the corridor kicking and screaming on the doors of every cabin."
Witnesses later told Paul that Lynsey had hit her head off a lifeboat as she plunged from a height equivalent to seven storeys into the dark sea. "The only saving grace for myself and my family was that she didn't suffer," he says now.
The ship took an hour to turn around and as day dawned a lifeboat was lowered to collect the lifebuoys thrown overboard. Lynsey's body was never found.
"I remember when daylight came up, trying to comprehend it, feeling the family around me and thinking 'this is a nightmare I might never recover from'.
"When I got back to the room, Sandra was hysterical. The children were sobbing on
and off and I was just numb. I was always their fixer, but I could not get out of this one. I had no 'get out of jail' card," he says.
The only memorial was a small service at the back of the ship where one of the ship's band attempted to play Eric Clapton's lament for his son Conor who fell from a New York apartment window, Tears in Heaven. "A priest said a few words, but what can you say?"
Paul's daughter Imelda, who is with him, reluctantly describes the scene.
"It was like it happened in slow motion," she says, "I just stood there thinking 'this is not happening' and ran in and told my sister Kelley."
Sandra now lives in the family home in Terenure, where there is a memorial to Lynsey in the garden. Paul O'Brien is living in what was once a €1m apartment in south Dublin, but the banks are looking to repossess it. He no longer has a business and has spent the last two years writing his story.
"I am back to square one," says O'Brien. "The entire business is gone, absolutely gone. But writing this book was therapy for me, it got me well and I'm still here, so nobody can take that from me."
He puts his arm around his daughter Imelda and laughs, like a man who has finally closed a chapter on life and is about to start another.