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'This is a terrible tragedy and we are heartbroken'

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Trying to make a fresh start: Annemarie O’Brien and daughter Paris, who both died in the Clondalkin apartment fire

Trying to make a fresh start: Annemarie O’Brien and daughter Paris, who both died in the Clondalkin apartment fire

Trying to make a fresh start: Annemarie O’Brien and daughter Paris, who both died in the Clondalkin apartment fire

As a garda emerged from Annemarie O'Brien's apartment in Clondalkin last Wednesday morning, those waiting outside got their first glimpse of the devastation inside.

Black marks on her chin and the side of her head showed it was still impossible to escape the carnage beyond Annemarie's front door. Unwittingly, the garda had brought part of the inferno with her, she was marked with ash.

Burned chemicals stained the air for hours afterwards as the wind blew up the canal behind the apartment complex, through open windows and out the other side. A tragic stench of molten plastic and smelted plaster.

The windows were indistinguishable as a means of allowing light into the building. Like the garda, they too were layered with soot, ash and a smoky debris. The only break on the black panes came where a fire officer's hand had wiped away part of the dark crust as he pushed the windows open.

A few miles away, family and friends rallied around Biddy O'Brien, holding a bedside vigil in St James's Hospital.

That anyone had survived the fire the night before was remarkable.

Biddy had come from Shankill with her daughter Holly (three) and son Jordan (four) to visit Annemarie.

Their cousin, Joanne Moorehouse, said the mothers had grown up together as cousins, but were more like sisters.

Annemarie (27) had just started to turn her life around. She had spent the last months of her life in a women's refuge living with her daughter Paris after a previous relationship came to a turbulent end. She had made new friends and was seven months pregnant, excited that Paris was about to have a little brother to play with.

It was a time of change but Biddy was the one constant in her life and stood by her.

"She had always been there," Joanne said.

"They were always very close, always together."

Cluainin Cronan was meant to be a happier place for Annemarie.

Run by Sonas, a domestic violence charity, it was a place where she was able to access a range of support services in the knowledge that she was safe and secure.

The complex is made up of four apartments, six houses, an office and facilities Sonas uses to provide support to mothers and children. All of the residents have access to a garden at the back of the property that is gated, fenced and protected. They all knew each other and would mingle in the garden as the children came together. Sonas CEO Fiona Ryan said they were all stunned and upset.

"All the other clients in the complex are in shock, particularly the kids. They cannot work out what is going on," she told the Sunday Independent.

"The adults would have known Annemarie, so they are very traumatised.

"Two-year-old Paris - she would have played with all these little kids. It is very bewildering for them. It's devastating."

Most residents stay for 18 months to two years. Annemarie had not been there that long but was looking for a place to raise her daughter and the son she was expecting.

Joanne said she had looked for a new home in the Clondalkin area and was keen to settle nearby.

"I met her recently in Holles Street and she said she was expecting a baby and she was really excited.

"She said she was looking for a house to bring up Paris and the new baby in and was in Clondalkin hoping that housing would come through for her soon."

She never got that chance.

"This is a terrible tragedy and we are absolutely heart-broken," said Ms Ryan.

"She had tried to restart her life and move on with her life for her and her daughter."

Officers at Dublin Fire Brigade received calls at 2.33am about a fire at the Cluainin Cronan complex.

The first unit arrived on the scene eight minutes later as neighbours woke to the sound of alarms and firefighters tackling flames. A burning glow and flashing blue lights from fire trucks and ambulances illuminated the night sky.

Five units from Tallaght, Rathfarnham, Dolphin's Barn and Donnybrook tackled the blaze as a breathing apparatus team entered the building to try and save those trapped inside.

Sources said the firefighters managed to get the blaze under control relatively quickly but by the time rescuers managed to get into the apartment it was too late for Annemarie, Paris and Holly.

All three were pronounced dead upon arrival at Tallaght Hospital after being pulled from the burning apartment.

Four-year-old Jordan bravely clung on in Our Lady's Children's Hospital for more than 12 hours. He eventually lost his battle to survive when his life support machine was turned off. Just a few miles away, his mother was being tended to in the burns unit of St James's Hospital.

A large group of family and friends went to St James's with a sense of helplessness, hoping for good news on Biddy's condition.

Each of a group of 20 visitors took turns to spend time with Biddy, the critically ill mother who had just lost her two children and best friend. She is the last remaining survivor from the Cluainin Cronan fire.

The family had been here before. They had relatives who perished in a massive blaze at a halting site in Carrickmines 17 months ago. Annemarie's brother, Andrew, was killed in a container fire in Bray in 2011.

As they waited for news on Biddy's condition, their concern understandably turned to disbelief as they asked: "How could this happen?"

Initial reports from the scene said the fire was sparked by an electrical fault in the sitting room before it spread throughout Annemarie's home. Gardai were examining the possibility that a faulty television may have been to blame.

They spent two days at the scene carrying out technical examinations. They were adamant the fire started in the corner where the television stood but were not so certain it was triggered by an electrical fault. Eventually it was concluded the fire was likely to have been started by a candle in that part of the room.

Biddy was put on life support as her family gathered at the hospital. She needed skin grafts to treat the horrific burns she received and spent hours in theatre.

Balloons and a picture have been left outside Biddy's home as a tribute to Annemarie and the children who perished.

A wake will be held today before they are all buried in Bray tomorrow.

Sunday Independent