Fire alarm not working when arson killed two, inquest hears

Garda used baton to stop intoxicated woman re-entering burning building, jury hears

John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36), died when a fire broke out at their rented apartment complex on St Joseph Road’s in Mallow in the early hours of March 13th, 2014. File photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36), died when a fire broke out at their rented apartment complex on St Joseph Road’s in Mallow in the early hours of March 13th, 2014. File photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

Fire alarms should be checked regularly and repaired immediately if malfunctioning, a jury at an inquest into the deaths of two men in Co Cork has recommended.

The jury heard a fire alarm system was not working at the time of an arson attack which killed the two men at Granary Court in Mallow.

At the inquest into the deaths of John Palmer (37) and Greg Lonergan (36), the jury heard the fire alarm at the complex had been disabled by a fire a month earlier and had not been repaired when Rachel Crawshaw set fire to the apartment on March 13th, 2014.

A fire extinguisher on the landing of the third floor was not working following an earlier fire. Emergency lighting was also not working, which hampered gardaí trying to rescue John Palmer, his brother Christopher, Mr Lonergan and Crawshaw from the burning building.

The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter in accordance with a finding of Cork Circuit Criminal Court, where Crawshaw was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with five suspended.

Checked every three months

It also recommended fire alarms be checked every three months and repaired immediately if not working.

The jury 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.

The inquest heard from Garda Caitríona O’Sullivan, who said she had called to the apartment at about 9.30pm on March 12th after reports that windows had been smashed. She found the two Palmer brothers, Mr Lonergan and Crawshaw, all extremely intoxicated, at the apartment.

Less than three hours later, she was back at the apartment complex responding to an emergency call after fire broke out there. She and her colleague, Garda Liam Phillips, kicked in the front door and went up through the smoke-filled building to find Christopher Palmer unconscious on the landing.

“I could see that his body was covered in dark black soot and he had froth coming from his mouth – Christopher Palmer was unconscious,” said Garda O’Sullivan. She said she helped Garda Phillips drag Christopher Palmer through the smoke-filled landing to a spot near an open window.

Extremely drunk

She heard a woman screaming in another apartment and opened the door, only only to be forced back by thick smoke. She said she managed to drag Crawshaw out but she was extremely drunk and highly abusive, and refused to leave without her bottle of cider.

Garda O’Sullivan had to grab Crawshaw and drag her downstairs, as she was pulling at Garda Phillips while he was trying to get Christopher Palmer out. After she got Crawshaw out of the burning building, she had to hit her with her baton for her own safety, to stop her re-entering the building.

Garda O’Sullivan went back into the building to assist Garda Phillips and together they carried Christopher Palmer out of the building. He was rushed to Cork University Hospital by ambulance but had to be resuscitated en-route as he stopped breathing for two minutes.

‘Lost the rag’

Christopher Palmer told gardaí that all four of them had been drinking all that day, but at some stage in the evening “Rachel Crawshaw lost the rag” and began smashing up the apartment, including valuables such as a TV, hi-fi system and computer. He said she threatened to burn the apartment, which was her “trademark” threat.

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,” he said.

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

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster said both deceased had high levels of alcohol in their system, 353mg for John Palmer, and 262mg for Greg Lonergan. She also found evidence that both had taken sedatives.

Both died from shock due to burns sustained in a house fire in association with smoke inhalation, complicated by alcohol toxicity in association with ingestion of central nervous system depressant drugs, Dr Bolster 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 Christopher Palmer and Crawshaw, while he also extending his sympathies to the Palmer and Lonergan families upon their loss.