Inquest into Bray fire deaths hears emotional testimony
Mark O’Shaughnessy and Brian Murray lost their lives in 2007
Mark O’Shaugnessy (left) and Brian Murray at the scene where they died in a fire at a disused building in Bray Co. Wickolow. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The inquest into the deaths of two Bray, Co Wicklow, fire fighters heard a detailed and emotion-charged description of the fire today and of the efforts to save the two men who died, and ultimately to recover their bodies.
Eddie McCann, the fire fighter who found the first body, that of 25-year-old Mark O’Shaughnessy, was giving evidence at Dublin Coroner’s Court into the events of that fateful day, September 26th 2007.
Following a lengthy deposition being read into the record, Mr McCann gave direct evidence to questions from the coroner.
At the fire, which was in a disused factory on Alelaide Terrace, Mr McCann and a colleague initially concentrated on cutting through two metal doors at opposite ends of the premises, while Mr O’Shaughnessy and the other firefighter who died, Brian Murray (46), entered the building from a centre-located corner door and fight the blaze from there.
When radio contact was lost with them, Mr McCann and a colleague, Tony Horan, went in to try to find them. The building was filled with thick black smoke. The heat was so intense, it caused some of the smoke to ignite spontaneously - a phenomenon fire fighters call “dancing angles”.
Mr McCann was using a Compressed Air Foam System (Cafs) in which he had not been trained. He used a spraying technique known as pulsing, short, sharp bursts that are effective with water but proved ineffective with foam inside the building.
“I tried to advance but you couldn’t; you couldn’t move for the heat,” Mr McCann told the coroner, Dr Brian Farrell. “So, we’d advance a tiny bit and you’d say, ‘ah Jesus Christ’ and you’d just go to mush, your brain is like. . . and I’m trying to get anyone on the radio - ‘Brian! Where are you? Where are you? Brian? Please answer! Answer’.”
Despite the difficult conditions, Mr McCann retreated from the building at least five times, but on each occasion went back in to try to save his colleagues in conditions that were worsening.
“It was getting worse because we had put more Cafs on the fire. The more you were putting it on, the hotter it was getting ... I remember saying to Tony, I said ‘this isn’t f***kin’ working’. I said ‘get me the [water] hoze-reel. . .’
“I kept thinking, this is actually killin’ us. By doing this, it’s killing me and it’s killing them [Mr Murray and Mr O’Shaughnessy]. I kept thinking how hot it is for me, what’s it like for them, down there? And I always remember being trained, and I still to this day, I think, I’d hate to be trapped in a fire, you know. That’s my worst fear - to be lying there, looking. And I kept thinking: he’s looking at me, he’s f**kin’. . . he can see me and I can’t see him.”
Mr McCann broke down briefly before continuing.
“That’s what was going through my head and I kept thinking, No, I’m not going to give up. No.”
He re-entered the building with a water hose and tried to pulse. However, the pressure was too low for the technique to be effective. Nonetheless, lying on the floor, he and Mr Horan tried to advance into the burning building in the hope of helping Mr Murray and Mr O’Shaughnessy.
“I kept crawling on our stomachs and Tony was. . . I said ‘just hold on to my leg’. I’m on my stomach and I’m crawling and holding the hose like this [gestures] and I’m trying to pulse it and you see the flames and Tony’s crawling behind me and he goes ‘It’s f. . . it’s too hot, it’s too hot.’ And I say ‘No, come on! Come on!’
“And I just thought, if we get past, it’s like a barrier, I’ll be grand, we’ll be in. For some reason, you know, it’s thick. It’s the whole building. It’s still going to be roasting no matter how far you go.”
At that moment, a large box-shaped metal object fell hard from the ceiling onto the ground just in front of him. The silence of the coroner’s court was shattered as Mr McCann smashed his open palm thrice down on the timber rail around with witness box.
He continued: “I thought, what happened? The f**king roof is coming in now. It was just carnage. And I said ‘Out, out’, and [Mr Horan] was pulling me and it was ‘Get the f**k out!’.”
Outside the building, back-up help had yet to arrive. The senior fire fighter on the scene, Jim Maguire, had to remain outside and in command. The only other fire fighter, Martin Lyons, also had to remain outside, operating the tender and keeping tabs on who was where.
Mr McCann recalled his state of mind at that moment.
“What do we do. I kept thinking: ‘where is everybody; where is all the lads?’. . . I was waiting for sirens, I was listening; I was like ‘where the f**k is everybody?’ Next thing I could see Greystones and I said ‘Oh Jesus, thank God, something’. And at that stage, you kind of knew, we knew, you know, there was no hope here.”
He got a fresh oxygen cylinder and began to get ready to re-enter the building.
“I was kneeling and Jim came over to me and said ‘are you going back in Eddie?’”
His voice breaking in the witness box, he replied “I said ‘you’re f**king right I am yeah’. And he said ‘good man’. . . I remember Jim, when I was kneeling getting my cylinder changed, I remember him kneeling beside me, and he said, ‘they’ll be at the’. . . [fighting back tears], “he said, eh, ‘they’ll be at the end of the hose reel.’”
“They’ll be at the end of the hose reel?” asked the coroner.
At that moment with other fire fighters on the scene and able to enter the building. Inside once more, Mr McCann crawled through slushy water and foam some six inches deep, past the metal box that had almost fallen on him, following the line of Mr Murray’s foam hozepipe.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I could hear people shuffling, I could hear them to my right and left. I just kept crawling; I knew what I was doing. . . [and then] I just saw his legs. You know. I crawled to him.
“I came up behind him. I put my hands in. And just kind of spun him around and dragged him, just dragged him. I shouted ‘I’ve got one!’ Everyone just kind of stormed onto me, they focussed on my voice. . .
“We were near the door at that stage and [they] just kind of took over. . .”
It was soon discovered that the body was that of Mr O’Shaughnessy. Inside the building meanwhile, two other fire fighters, Ronan O’Sullivan and Denys Horgan, had found the body of Mr Murray. The intense heat of the blaze had melted his helmet and jacket into the concrete.
Dr Farrell commended Mr McCann, praising him for his bravery and persistence in trying to save his colleagues.
Earlier in his deposition, Mr McCann was strongly critical of the management of the Bray fire service.
He said: “I feel that on that day, there should have been two appliances called at the start because of the nature of the building. [Bray watch room controller] John Whiston knew what kind of building it was. As Brian always said, they always under-react to everything and they always got away with it.
“It was common knowledge that the control room staff were told not to send us to certain calls. They would ring different people to check on fires, such as the guards or Shepherd Security. There should have been a senior officer at the fire earlier.
“I feel that Jim Maguire was put into an impossible position on that day because he had to combine his job with a fireman’s job. The same for Martin Lyons. I think also that we weren’t properly trained for using Cafs and the theory behind it. I don’t think it was suited for a hot fire like that.
“I think that all the senior officers should have to spend a period of time in the appliance on calls and be properly trained. That way, they might realise the consequences of putting money before people.”
The inquest continues tomorrow.