Tuesday 16 July 2019

N25 crash that claimed four lives is recalled at a harrowing inquest

Inquest into fatal crash held in New Ross

The late Steven Alexander and Douglas Alexander Jnr
The late Steven Alexander and Douglas Alexander Jnr
The late Douglas and Lily Alexander
The funeral of the members of the Alexander family at Cushinstown Church on December 11, 2017

David Looby

The inquest into the deaths of four members of an American family who were killed in one of the worst car accidents in the county's history recorded verdicts of accidental death in New Ross.

Douglas Alexander Snr and his wife Lily (both 75), and their sons Douglas Jnr (52) and Stephen (49) were killed on December 4, 2017, when the saloon BMW 520 rental car they were driving was in a collision with a heavy goods triple-axle, 40ft articulated lorry on the N25 at Begerin Hill, 5km east of New Ross on the Wexford town road, at around 6.25 p.m.

Douglas Snr, a retired building contractor from Strabane, Co. Tyrone, and Lily, who hailed from County Limerick, and their sons suffered catastrophic injuries in the accident and died at the scene after Douglas Jnr performed a u-turn on the road.

The inquest held at a packed function room in the Brandon House Hotel - where the four had dined with relations an hour prior to the accident - was told that the driver had no time to react before the truck he was driving collided with the silver BMW. Such was the impact emergency personnel arriving at the scene initially thought it was a single-vehicle accident, only to discover, to their horror, the car wedged underneath the front of the lorry.

Neither driver had any alcohol in their systems and neither were on the phone at the time of the accident, the inquest heard.

Garda Robert Carty said he was alerted to the accident at around 6.30 p.m.

He said the family had flown into Dublin Airport that morning to attend Lily's sister Winifred (Winnie) Keevey's wake that evening and funeral Mass at Cushinstown Church, located less than 1km from the scene of the accident, the following morning.

The Alexanders met relations Oliver and Mary Prior at the airport and travelled in convoy to their home in Tallaght, having hired the car. Douglas Snr played with the Priors' grandchildren and played some cards, while Lily and her sons got some rest before travelling on to Co. Wexford.

Driving in convoy from the Brandon House Hotel, the silver BMW in which all four family members died was driven by Douglas Alexander Jnr.

Oliver Prior said he drove his black Hyundai Tuscon from the hotel onto the N25 where he noticed road works. His wife Mary told him he had missed a turn-off as he climbed Begerin Hill and he told County Wexford Coroner's Court that, as there was plenty of room on the roadside, he decided to pull in.

'I could see the Alexander car right behind me. I decided to turn around even though I knew we were going the right way. I think the stone wall (at the house) was mistaken for the church wall in Cushinstown. I had a good view towards Wexford and there was no vehicle coming from that direction.'

Mr Prior pulled out onto the N25 and when he looked back he could see the lights of a vehicle in the distance.

'I think I saw more than one set of lights. As I pulled out that was the last time I saw the Alexander family. I was still in first gear when I heard the bang. I knew the truck had hit the Alexanders as it could be no one else.'

Mr Prior pulled in and his wife contacted the emergency services.

Mary Prior said her mother Winifred Keevey died on December 2. She contacted her aunt Lily in Chicago and she said she would travel to Ireland with her husband and their daughter Debbie, but Debbie decided not to travel and her brothers Doug Jnr and Stephen travelled instead.

She recalled the journey to visiting family members in Lacken on December 4.

'I thought I had missed the turn-off as the road was so black. Oliver pulled in. I remember him checking his mirrors. I saw two soft lights coming in the opposite direction, it was the truck involved in the accident. As we were heading off I saw the bright lights to our right-hand-side and the next thing I heard a bang.'

Ms Prior contacted the emergency services, telling them there had been a bad accident.

She spoke with the passenger Kevin Collins of the Scania truck, who told her he thought it would never stop.

'I rang my brother Raymond Keevey to speak with him in private.'

Dr Mark Walsh attended the scene, pronouncing the four family members dead at 7.50 p.m.

Truck driver Richard Nolan from Enniscorthy recalled driving up the hill and seeing two trucks overtake him. 'I got up to the brow of the hill and noticed a trailer in the ditch at the right hand side. It had jackknifed. I noticed a car in the ditch at the front of the trailer. I went to the car and shouted "can I help, can I help?" I saw the driver and the passenger in the front and both were slumped over.'

He recalled seeing a nurse shining a light into the back of the car and shaking her head: 'She said, "for your own good, don't look into the back".'

'I spoke with the driver, who said he was shook but OK. He asked me how many people were in the car and if anyone was dead.'

New Ross curate Fr Roger O'Neill said he was travelling on the road at 6.30 p.m. when he came across the accident.

He met a nurse, Grace O'Sullivan, who informed him that three people were dead and that she thought the front seat passenger, Stephen Alexander, was still alive. 'I administered the Sacraments to him and I said some prayers,' he said.

The truck driver, Paul Caulfield, said he was on his way from Youghal, driving an empty trailer to the UK, and was planning to catch the ferry that night to Pembroke.

Mr Caulfield said he has been a lorry driver since 1999 and had set out from Youghal that evening with a passenger, Kevin Collins, who was collecting a truck in England.

Describing the road conditions on the N25 as 'greasy', Mr Caulfield said he overtook a truck and a crane in front of him on Begerin Hill.

'When I got to the top (of the hill) I pulled back in to the left-hand lane. I don't know what speed I was doing as I had my eyes in front of me on the road. I came to the crest of the hill and there was a big bend on the road. I spotted a car come across in front of me. As I came down the hill I saw a car pull across the road around 50m in front of me. I can't remember if I braked. I may have flashed my lights. I don't remember. I just remember a car shooting in front of me. Then all I saw was lights and then we hit. I slammed the brakes and we went across the central reservation.'

He recalled being thrown to the other side of the cab and climbing out of the driver's window to phone the emergency services.

Liam Dwyer from New Ross, who is South East Radio managing director, said he witnessed the accident happening. 'I had a good view as there were no vehicles ahead of me. I witnessed the arctic swerve to the right. The truck jackknifed,' he said, adding that 'in a split second' he could see a car underneath the lorry.

'The lorry looked like it had done something out of character as if to avoid something. I only then realised the car had come out of somewhere. The first thing I did was ring 999.'

He met nurse Grace O'Sullivan who informed him there was nothing she could do for the car's occupants.

A solicitor representing the Alexander family asked Mr Dwyer where the car was in relation to the truck and he said the car was under the right-hand side of the vehicle.

Kevin Collins said he noticed a car performing a u-turn on Begerin Hill, driving back in the direction of New Ross. 'Paul reacted and said "Jesus Christ". He had no time to react.'

He said the BMW pulled out in front of them and was hit on the side.

Ms O'Sullivan recalled coming upon the scene, saying conditions on the road were 'pitch black'.

'I noticed a lot of lights. There was a lot of debris on the road and I saw some people on the road and everything about them looked slow and shocked. When he got out the lorry driver said repeatedly that there was nothing he could have done, he said "they came straight out in front of me".'

Ms O'Sullivan went immediately to the car. She said: 'The driver's head was buried in the steering wheel which had become dislodged.'

She checked for a pulse on each of its occupants but couldn't find any. The airbags had gone off and she noticed a woman wearing gloves in the back seat.

'The lady was getting cold and there was no question she was dead. There was a man lying face down on her lap and he was as cold as her.'

Ms O'Sullivan said she got 'an enormous fright' when she saw the woman's facial injuries.

She said the only person wearing a seatbelt was Stephen Alexander, a highly decorated police officer with Bolingbrook Police Department in Illinois. She noticed his body move and believing him alive performed CPR on him. 'He did move; it was a slight motion forward in the front passenger seat. I thought this man's life could be saved. I ran into the middle of the road knowing I needed help.'

She met John O'Shea and Stephen Alexander's remains were removed from the car and placed on the grass. 'I opened his leather jacket. He wasn't as warm as previously. I tried CPR.'

As there was no reaction when she shined a light in his eyes she realised he was dead. 'I said the Act of Contrition into the man's ear.'

Local man Colin Maher was driving his three children home from New Ross to Old Ross when he came upon the scene.

He was speaking with his wife Joanne on the phone on Bluetooth. 'I saw two lorries enter the fast lane. The first lorry pulled back into the slow lane where it was safe.'

Mr Maher was now directly behind the lorry being driven by Mr Caulfield. 'We were two car lengths behind the lorry. As I glanced up the hill my attention was caught by a silver car pulling in after the B&B. I then saw the car pull out sharply at speed and in an aggressive manner.'

He said as the lorry driver tried to avoid the car it crashed into it, and both vehicles travelled across the road into a barrier and grass embankment.

'Debris struck the windscreen on the passenger side of my car. When the collision occurred I was still speaking to my wife. I told her "Oh my God. There is after being an accident."'

Mr Maher rang 112 and was told to bring his children home from the crash scene.

New Ross Fire Service station officer Cyril McGarr said his crew were the first to attend the scene at 6.44 p.m. They removed the roof and doors so that the Alexander family members' remains could be removed with dignity. Mr McGarr said the crew carried out their own medical assessment. He confirmed that Stephen Alexander was the only car occupant wearing a safety belt.

Forensic collision investigator Garda Tom Bolger said: 'The truck and car wedged underneath travelled at speed across the main road into a grass verge and barrier.'

Tachograph records show the truck was travelling at 70 km/h, 10 km/h below the speed limit.

Garda Bolger said: 'The collision occurred on the extreme left-hand side. The car would have exited the gateway fully and was endeavouring to complete a u-turn back towards New Ross. The car was impacted on the driver's side of the car. It was a T-bone collision. a full-on frontal by the truck - right across the two doors so the truck collided between the two wheels of the BMW 520. The truck driver (Mr Caulfield) did not have the time or the distance to avoid a collision,' Garda Bolger said.

He said the crash scene was preserved overnight, adding that an investigation reconstruction showed Douglas Alexander Jnr had an adequate view to see the oncoming truck. 'The first view would have allowed the car to clear the path of the Scania truck safely.'

The Alexander family members' remains were identified the following morning at University Hospital Waterford mortuary by a Wexford relative.

Pathologist at University Hospital Waterford Dr Nigam Shah gave almost 15 minutes of medical evidence about injuries suffered by the four family members. He said all four occupants of the BMW died from catastrophic injuries, with significant head injuries occurring.

County Wexford Coroner Dr Sean Nixon recommended a verdict of accidental death in each case, which jury foreman Victor Furness said the jury concurred with.

Dr Nixon said there was no evidence that Mr Caulfield was responsible in any way for the accident, describing it as a very sad and tragic case.

A clearly moved Mr Caulfield placed his arm around his wife's shoulder as he listened to the coroner bring the lengthy, harrowing inquest to a close.

Dr Nixon said the driver of the car would have been at a major disadvantage having only arrived over from the States that morning and would not have had much rest; adding that being used to driving on the other side of the road, he may have been expecting traffic coming from the left rather than from the right.

He said the Alexanders were clearly a close-knit family who were left devastated by the accident.

Dr Nixon said the emergency services had a very difficult task that night. He thanked all of the witnesses and Ms O'Sullivan for her tremendous work. 'Her sense of calm helped control the scene at the very beginning.'

He thanked Ms O'Sullivan and everyone who assisted at the scene, in particular the emergency services, and offered his sympathies to the Alexander family's relatives in attendance, and also to family members throughout Ireland and in America.

Mr Furness offered his and the jury's deepest sympathies, while New Ross Superintendent John McDonald described the actions of Ms O'Sullivan as 'unbelievable'

He said: 'It's very hard to explain the circumstances. Unfortunately it's one of those things where we will never know exactly why and what the answers are. The family have suffered an unbelievable loss which cannot be imagined.'

He said Mr Caulfiled found himself in an unenviable situation through no fault of his own.

Supt McDonald said all emergency staff at Begerin Hill found themselves in a very difficult scene on that fateful night.

New Ross Standard