Wednesday 21 March 2018

Alarm, extinguisher, lighting not working in fatal Mallow fire flat

Mallow inquest hears how Rachel Crashaw 'lost the rag', smashed up the apartment and threatened to burn the place down

Fire alarms should be checked regularly and repaired immediately if not working, a jury has recommended after hearing that a fire alarm system was not working at the time of an arson attack which claimed the lives of two men in an apartment block in North Cork three years ago.

The jury at the inquest into the deaths of John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36) made several recommendations on fire safety after hearing how they had died in an arson attack by Rachel Crawshaw at an apartment at Granary Court, St Joseph's Road Mallow on March 13, 2014.

Crawshaw, a native of Mallow but of no fixed abode, is currently serving a 15 year sentence with five years suspended imposed by Judge Sean Ó Donnabhain at Cork Circuit Criminal Court for the manslaughter of the two men and the arson attack.

At this week's inquest, on Wednesday, the jury heard the fire alarm system had been disabled by a fire at the complex on February 26, 2014 and was due to be repaired on March 19 but was not working when Crawshaw set fires at three different locations in a flat rented by Mr Palmer's brother, Christopher.

A fire extinguisher on the landing of the third floor was also not working, following an earlier fire, while emergency lighting was also not working, which hampered gardai trying to rescue the two Palmers, Mr Lonergan and Crawshaw herself from the burning building.

The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter in accordance with a finding of Cork Circuit Criminal Court where Crawshaw was given a 15 year sentence with five years suspended but they also recommended fire alarms be checked every three months and repaired immediately if not working.

They also recommended that fire extinguishers should be replaced immediately if used while emergency lighting systems in public areas such as stairs should also be checked regularly and repaired if found not to be working.

Christopher Palmer, who was found unconscious on the third floor landing by Garda Caitriona O'Sullivan and Garda Liam Phillips and was rushed by ambulance to Cork University Hospital, later told gardai that all four of them had been drinking all that day at the flat.

At some stage in the evening "Rachel Crawshaw lost the rag" and began smashing up the apartment, including a TV, hi-fi system and computer and threatened to burn the apartment. "That was Rachel's trademark or main threat, always - that she would burn the place down," he said.

He recalled later that night that "Rachel was again losing the rag - by that I mean going mental - .... Rachel had a lighter in her hand and she set light to something that she was holding - it could have been a duvet or a cushion - I'm just not sure but panic set in around the apartment.

"John, Mushy (Mr Lonergan) and myself tried to stop her ... it was too late and the apartment went up in smoke .... basically, what I am telling you is that there was no fire in my apartment until Rachel Crawshaw used the lighter to set fire to what she was holding."

The inquest heard evidence from paramedic Paddy Moore that Christopher Palmer stopped breathing for two minutes as the ambulance was leaving Ballydaheen but they managed to resuscitate him and he was later treated at Cork University Hospital for smoke inhalation.

The inquest also heard from Mallow Fire Station Officer Tony Douglas that officers using breathing apparatus recovered the badly charred bodies of John Palmer and Mr Lonergan, and both were pronounced dead at the scene around 1am by Dr Raymond Jonas of Mallow Southdoc.

Garda Technical Expert Garda Kevin Sheehan said that he examined the scene and found that there was no sign of any electrical fault causing the blaze and he found three seats of the fire - one in each bedroom and a main one near a sofa in the living room, but no accelerant had been used.

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster said both deceased had high levels of alcohol in their system, 353mgs in the case of Mr Palmer and 262mgs in the case of Mr Lonergan, while she also found evidence that both had taken sedatives as well.

Both died from shock due to burns sustained in a house fire in association with smoke inhalation and complicated by alcohol toxicity in association with ingestion of central nervous system depressive drugs, said Dr Bolster.

Both men had 11pc carbon monoxide saturation in their lungs and the normal level that is fatal for a healthy person is 50pc saturation level but the fact that they had been drinking and had taken sleeping tablets and other sedatives meant they were more at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Both men were highly sedated and in the case of Mr Palmer he was in a coma when the fire broke out and both would have been unconscious when the flames started to spread so they would not have felt any pain, she said.

Coroner for North Cork Dr Michael Kennedy thanked the jury for their recommendations and praised Garda O'Sullivan and Garda Phillips for their bravery in rescuing both Chris Palmer and Crawshaw while he also extended his sympathies to the Palmer and Longeran families on their loss.