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Men who plunged to their deaths in the River Shannon were trapped in steel cage after safety mechanism on crane failed, court hears

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Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

Two men plunged to their deaths in the River Shannon after a safety mechanism on a crane, which was holding a steel cage carrying the men, failed to operate, a court heard today.

There were emotional scenes as members of both men’s families left the court as harrowing video footage was played of the moment the steel cage that carried their loved ones plunged into the river.

A safety mechanism aimed at preventing weight overloading on the crane failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on a wire rope that “snapped” which was holding the cage carrying the men above the river, said senior prosecuting counsel Shane Costelloe SC.

The tragedy occurred at around 3.40pm, and was witnessed by members the public.

The two men who died, Bryan Whelan (29), O’Briensbridge, Co Clare, and TJ O’Herlihy (36), Castleisland, Co Kerry, drowned as they could not escape from the cage.

Both stonemasons had been harnessed into the cage and were wearing life-jackets, as was legally required under health and safety regulations, while they carried out specialised repair works on the south side of Thomond Bridge, Limerick City, on August 29, 2015.

A third worker, Paul Murphy, Askeaton, who was also working on the platform at the time, managed to free his harness and was rescued in the Shannon estuary by emergency personnel.

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Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Members of the O'Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquiry into their sons' deaths which took place in 2015 at Thomond Bridge, Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Separate investigations by the Gardaí, and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) followed, resulting in criminal charges against two companies – Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd, Dock Road, Limerick, and Palfinger Ireland Ltd, Church Hill, Cloncollog, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Both firms pleaded guilty to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Palfinger supplied the winch crane to Nationwide on March 12, 2003, but unbeknown to Palfinger, the crane’s user manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequently carrying out testing of the crane’s overload protection system, which it later emerged had failed on the day of the “catastrophic tragedy”.

The crane was mounted onto a flat-bed lorry on the bridge with an extendable telescopic winch that held the men in the platform cage via a wire rope or cable.

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Palfinger pleaded guilty that it failed to take steps necessary to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane and its operations to ensure that when it was in use it would be safe.

Nationwide pleaded guilty that, being an employer, it failed to ensure that contracted workers were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare, and that it failed to ensure the winch crane was in a safe condition, in particular, the overload protection system, and “as a consequence, TJ O’Herlihy and Bryan Whelan died”.

There were emotional scenes in the court as Mr Costelloe read out a victim impact statement written by Mr O’Herlihy’s partner Therese “Tess” Wigsten, mother to their two young children, Conor (10) and Katie (7), who all travelled to the court hearing from their home in Sweden.

“Conor was three years old and Katie was six months when their Dad died. We were not the ‘typical or normal’ family because our son has a progressive mitochondrial disease and has special needs, and he needs full-time help with everything,” wrote Ms Wigsten.

“My children have lost one of the most important persons in their life, their Dad. Katie didn't even get to know him, and will never experience how it is to be ‘Daddy’s girl’.”

Katie Wigsten wrote how “life would have been more beautiful and nicer if Dad was alive. We would have been a family of four, he could help me with homework and pick me up from school, and if I could turn back time I would tell Dad never to take the job so he could be with us.”

Conor Wigsten, wrote: “I miss my Dad, I wish he was here to help me, to carry me and play with me. I wish he could help me in school.”

Therese Wigsten continued: “What hurts most is that Katie has had to grow up faster, take more responsibility than other children her age, because I have to help Conor all the time [feed him, change his nappy, give him medicine, push his wheelchair, carry him and so on], and so Katie will always be second, because she has no other parent that can give her the love and attention she needs when the other is looking after Conor.”

“I have lost the love of my life. Every day is a struggle, our family is broken,” added Ms Wigsten.

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The scene at Thomond Bridge, Limerick, in August 2015 where Bryan Whelan and TJ O’Herlihy drowned when the cable holding their cage broke and fell into the water as the men worked on the bridge. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

The scene at Thomond Bridge, Limerick, in August 2015 where Bryan Whelan and TJ O’Herlihy drowned when the cable holding their cage broke and fell into the water as the men worked on the bridge. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

The scene at Thomond Bridge, Limerick, in August 2015 where Bryan Whelan and TJ O’Herlihy drowned when the cable holding their cage broke and fell into the water as the men worked on the bridge. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

Bryan Whelan’s brother, John Paul Whelan, speaking on behalf of his devastated family, told the court: “What haunts us most as a family, other than being without Bryan, is the tragic circumstances of his death. It is a constant and conscious effort that weighs tirelessly on each of us to not dwell on Bryan’s final moments of fear and distress as we know he fought to survive on that fateful day.

“Bryan was excited to be working so close to home and on a project such as Thomond Bridge, which he took great pride in. It’s hard to believe it ended in such a tragedy. The Bridge now serves as a constant, painful reminder of the devastating and disastrous events of that day.

“While we are relieved that responsibility was accepted by Palfinger Ireland and Nationwide Crane Hire, we have suffered immeasurable grief and heart-breaking loss. But it is our hope that lessons have been learnt and other families will not have to endure the torture and turmoil of such a catastrophic event which could have been avoided.”

Dermot O’Brien, lead investigator, HSA, said the two defendant companies had cooperated fully with the Authority’s probe, which he hoped would help “to try to prevent further similar accidents recurring”.

Judge Tom O’Donnell said it would be “inappropriate” to deliver an immediate judgment given he had listened to a “significant amount of evidence and deeply poignant victim impact statements”.

He adjourned sentencing to October 7.


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