Tuesday 16 July 2019

Notorious 'death's pass' hill at centre of inquest

Inquest into fatal crash held in New Ross

Gardaí at the scene of the accident on December 4, 2017
Gardaí at the scene of the accident on December 4, 2017

David Looby

The final, grim chapter in the story of a family who travelled 3,700 miles to attend the funeral of a close relative near New Ross, only to be wiped out in a split second, was heard at the inquest.

More than a dozen witnesses, all still shocked from the events of the night of December 4, 2017, outlined over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, their recollections of what happened when a decision to attempt a u-turn on a busy national road had devastating consequences for four people directly, but many more people indirectly. The volume of fatal accidents at Begerin Hill over the decades is such that it has been given the name 'death's pass' by locals. Senior council roads engineers say there should be no reason for accidents on the road which sees a dual carriageway on the New Ross to Wexford section of the N25 taper off into a single carriageway. The bend at the brow of the hill and the pace at which vehicles pass each other have been listed as reasons for accidents. In the case of Douglas Alexander Snr, his wife Lily and their sons Douglas Junior and Stephen human error was the reason given for their untimely demise, less than a kilometre from their home.

The inquest heard that a last-minute decision not to travel meant their sister Debbie was not in the car that day. The timeline of events and the clear rendering of evidence - from the low amount of traffic on the road, to the normalcy of the day (the passenger in the Scania lorry Kevin recalling how uneventful the day's journey had been up until the crash) - highlighted how the vulnerability of life and how death can occur in a heartbeat, or a look in the wrong direction even.

The variables of what could have happened on the night, including if there had been cars on the opposite side of the road and if another driver had been travelling over the crest of the hill at the time the u-turn was attempted were unsaid, but patently present in the thoughts of many gathered on Thursday at the inquest.

The 50 plus attendees crammed into the room at the Brandon House Hotel heard horrific detail of the injuries sustained by the four members of the Alexander family, the pathologist looking overwhelmed while reading the sheer scale of injuries at times, as he recounted them over a 15-minute period.

A deafening silence pervaded the room, with most occupants looking downcast, some holding onto the hands of relatives for comfort.

The coroner, Dr Sean Nixon, New Ross Superintendent John McDonald and Debbie Alexander Cegerlak all paid tribute to the brave, selfless actions of nurse Grace O'Sullivan, who somehow managed to muster the courage to look into the car that day, witnessing the catastrophic injuries inflicted on its occupants in the massive impact a 40ft articulated lorry has on a car and attempt to save the life of Stephen Alexander in spite of his condition.

Her unwavering hope for life on a pitch black Wexford road surrounded by death was one of the most human and life-affirming messages to come out of the inquest. The statement read out by a solicitor on behalf of Debbie and her family in America the other stand out moment.

Having lost her entire family in an accident so far from home, Debbie took the time to write to all of the witnesses collectively, thanking them for everything they did for her parents and brothers, for the dignity they afforded them and for the love they have shown her family in County Wexford and her in Chicago.

The message she sent across the ocean, across the miles, to the driver, Paul Caulfield, who was supported by family at the inquest, was one of kindness and hope.

In wishing him health and happiness and letting him know he is in the family's prayers, every day of their life, Debbie absolved him of any guilt he may feel about what happened to the Alexanders that day. Coroner Sean Nixon and forensic scenes investigator Garda Tom Bolger had already highlighted how there was nothing he could have done to prevent the accident from occurring. There was simply no time, space, technology, or human effort that could have prevented the crash, as a car pulled out in front of a vehicle travlling at 70km/h, within around ten yards.

The inquest took an emotional toll on several officials and had a lasting impact on witnesses to the events of Decmeber 4, 2017, a night that will live long in the memory of people in County Wexford, as a caution about the dangers of driving and the need for absolute vigilance on our roads and when driving in a foreign country. For the four members of the proud Irish American Alexander family - who were mourned at a packed funeral service in Cushinstown that December prior to being laid to rest together in Chicago - were far away from home when they travelled here three weeks before Christmas in 2017.

Little did they know they would be going to their eternal home when they set out on that fateful, tragic journey.

New Ross Standard