'We just have to get on with our lives'
The O'Sheas are honouring the memory of their three children with a charity that has 'we value life' as its motto, writes Dave Kenny
'There is no more length to this piece of string. I have nothing left."
Brian O'Shea is exhausted. He has been up all night, enduring every parent's worst nightmare: a missing child. At 9.30 the previous evening, his 18-month-old toddler son, Torben, disappeared for seven hours in a forest in Denmark.
Last week, the Dalkey man spoke to the Sunday Independent about the nightmare end to his family's nightmare year. On July 16, 2013, their three children - Soren (11), Saoirse (9) and Connor (3) - were killed in a car crash near Maria O'Shea's father's home in North Jutland.
Maria, who is a GP, was driving them to a play date when a speeding driver ploughed into her Citroen Berlingo. The O'Sheas were on holidays from Australia at the time. Brian was not in the car, but was called to the scene.
Torben and Maria survived with minor injuries. The child's disappearance last Saturday night brought back the horror of that day.
"It was terrifying. He is only really starting to walk and was wearing just dungarees and a T-shirt. We had friends over from Ireland and were out in the countryside showing them where we used to pick berries with the kids. The spot is on a closed dirt track."
While Maria stayed with their friends, Brian went up on a ridge by himself to find raspberries. Both parents believed Torben was with the other.
"It only took a split second for him to disappear. Maria thought I had taken him. He must have come looking for me."
The parents began a frantic search and then called the police. Two helicopters and a dog team scoured the countryside looking for their son. As darkness fell, the family were asked to go home and wait.
"The waiting was terrible: you have to gird yourself for the worst-case scenario. Naturally, I kept thinking of last year. I went back out at first light to continue searching and was in a beech wood at 5am when I spotted Torben beside a path. He was face down in a foetal position.
"His eyes were open - he was rigid and didn't reply when I called his name. I lifted him up and felt his body heat. I knew then he was okay. He cried for five seconds and put his head on my chest. I knew I had him back."
Torben is physically unscathed after his ordeal, which happened almost a year to the day since he last cheated death in the same area. As Brian is talking, the blond toddler is blathering away on his lap, and annoying the cat.
"I asked his brothers and sister to help find him. They came through for us. We are just so glad to have him back," says Brian.
"He's great. He's so resilient: it must be the Viking and Celt genes. There's not a bother on him. We're going to be traumatised for years to come because of what happened and he'll be going 'what's the problem?'" he jokes.
The O'Sheas have had very little to smile about over the past 12 months. The grieving process is only in its early stages. They have thrown themselves into the charity they set up in honour of their children - The Three Musketeers. Even with that distraction, the memories are ever-present.
"Sometimes, when I'm on the computer working on their Facebook memorial page, I have to turn my eyes away from the photos. I can't bear to make a connection with them.
"That said, things have changed a little since Torben disappeared. I made a new connection with the kids when I asked them for help. It's really comforting to feel that their essence is still here."
The children's anniversary fell last Wednesday. Brian and Maria commissioned a crystal-and-stone memorial to place at the crash site. Other, less permanent, markers have been vandalised in the past.
"Floral tributes and memorials that have been left by the road have been stolen, broken or removed," says Brian. "Maria's dad has stopped bringing flowers out. He can't bear to see the site being desecrated."
Maria describes the anniversary as a "truly horrible day".
"In the midst of all the pain, we were met again with amazing love and support," she says. "People came to the roadside with us for the exact time of the accident, and turned up spontaneously to lay flowers and light candles. They came to the memorial service, which was officiated at by the priest who not only married us and christened Torben, but buried the kids.
"Our friends and family who were not able to attend showed their support by phoning, sms-ing, emailing and Facebook-posting."
The service featured a Yeats reading and some music - Coldplay's Fix You and Robbie Williams's Better Man.
While the family received welcome support on the day, how has their story been generally received in Denmark?
"Some apportioned blame to Maria, saying she was an Australian tourist who didn't know which side of the road to drive on and was distracted by the kids. That was totally wrong. She's Danish. She grew up around here. She knows these roads like the back of her hand. That's why we were so determined to clear her name."
In January, the charges of 'involuntary manslaughter' and 'failing to give way' against Maria were finally dropped. The O'Sheas were disappointed by the court's decision not to proceed with a trial, as they hoped it would clear any suspicions about her role in the accident.
"We still can't understand why it took so long to make a decision in Maria's case when the driver, Lasse Burholt, was tried back in October. We had to go over six months, through Christmas and New Year's, with this hanging over our heads."
Brian doesn't want to discuss Burholt, who was speeding and had been using his mobile phone just prior to the crash. He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and given a €1,300 fine and a three-year probation on his licence. He has never made contact with Maria.
"Lasse Burholt is just not important. We have to get on with our lives. It's been a year now and people and the press have moved on. I wouldn't want it any other way. You don't want to be constantly pointed out as the parents whose three kids died. That said, sometimes it can be hard when people don't want to talk about it at all, like at work in Australia. The boys just won't discuss it."
Brian owns his own successful business, Eco Friendly Solutions, which manufactures wood briquettes and delivers them all over Australia. Has he ever broken down at work in front of his colleagues? "No, but I do when I'm alone in my truck. Driving in Australia gives me too much time to think."
The family live in Pemberton, Western Australia. Returning home was one of the biggest challenges they faced after the crash. The children had helped decorate their home - an old warehouse - before they travelled to Europe last year.
"It's such an unusual, rambling kind of house. We used to have a trampoline upstairs for the kids. They are still such a part of the place.
"I haven't been able to go into their bedrooms. I've looked into the boys' but haven't stepped into Saoirse's.
The O'Sheas are using - as Brian says - the "essence" of their children to fuel The Three Musketeers and help underprivileged youngsters from Cambodia to Africa.
"We seek projects which improve the lives of disadvantaged and orphaned children in underdeveloped countries. Kids need to be allowed to grow up in a safe, healthy and suitable environment. Our motto is 'We value life'."
To date the charity has raised $70,000 (€51,800), $10,000 (€7,400) over the past month. "The people of Pemberton have been fantastic. At the time of the crash, they raised $7,500 with a raffle. We put the money straight into the charity. Last month, a local policeman swam down a river, raising $6,500. Maria and some friends did a breakfast and raised $500.
"That money has helped fund a deaf school in Kenya which was going to close. $3,000 will keep 150 children and teachers fed for three months. It's critical that the kids stay in class. I was there in March; I know what they have to face. Saoirse was deaf.
"It's not all about money though. It's about providing volunteers and services. We're giving people the tools to create a better quality of life for their children.
"I was in the Rift Valley with the Masai and came across an old woman who had to care for her orphaned grandchildren. She was totally outside of the aid pool. She makes beaded jewellery which we bought, brought to market and sold. We then went back and bought more.
"It disgusts me to see what happened with Rehab in Ireland. We have a duty of care to our donors to make sure their money works. If you give us a euro, it will go precisely to where it's supposed to go -not into paying a ridiculous wage for some administrator. Ten thousand dollars for the Three Musketeers is equivalent to $100,000 for the bigger charities.
"This charity is our vocation, as it's driven by a higher power - our three children. Don't get me wrong, I'm no saint. I've been around the block - but it does feel like a vocation."
Brian and Maria know they will never recover from their loss. The past year has just been a primer for the grieving yet to come. The nightmare has made them reassess life and their own mortality.
"I used to fear death," says Brian. "I don't any more, now the kids have gone before us. It's as if they're saying: 'we've done it Dad, so you can do it too when the time comes for you'."