Two firefighters dead and a flawed system laid bare
The deaths of Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy left Bray in shock and Wicklow County Council running for cover
Firefighters Mark O’Shaugnessy (left) and Brian Murray at the scene where they died in a fire at a disused building in Bray, Co Wicklow, in September 2007.
It can’t have been the easiest of tasks going to firefighter Mark O’Shaughnessy’s station locker to clear out his belongings days after his death.
On September 26th, 2007, O’Shaughnessy and Brian Murray, a colleague in the Bray, Co Wicklow, fire service, entered a burning building to check that no one was inside as the blaze took hold. Instead of saving the lives of others, though, it was they who perished when the roof collapsed, engulfing them in debris and smoke and flames.
Murray (46) left behind a wife and 15 children; O’Shaughnessy was single but with a long-term partner and although just 25, he had 2½ years fire service experience behind him.
The three who went to check his locker were O’Shaughnessy’s brother Eamon; Hazel O’Brien, his partner, and Keith Gordon, his best friend.
A few days before the fire, Eamon saw Mark at home, sitting at the kitchen table, writing something, but he had paid little attention. Now he was going to gather his dead brother’s belongings.
Because the key to O’Shaughnessy’s locker was on his body, or with the Garda after the blaze, a firefighter colleague at the station had to break it open. Inside were the clothes out of which he had changed before going to the fire and on top of them was a note, the handwritten one O’Shaughnessy had been jotting at his kitchen table a few days before.
“It was a list of his concerns, of what he thought . . . It was literally in his own hand, saying ‘these are the problems’,” Hazel said in an interview with The Irish Times.
The note referred to problems with the station roster, to a “lack of men” – firefighters expected to fight blazes and, sometimes, rescue people from burning buildings at not inconsiderable risk to themselves.
It continued, in aspirational terms: “We shall always be a minimum of 2 crews.”
Another line noted: “TRAFFIC – more and more we can’t get through the traffic quick enough in the appliance – How can we be expected to arrive at the STN in 13 min.”
Another part of the note referred to the minimum number of firefighters needed to constitute a proper – ie fully manned – crew. “What is the minimum?” the handwritten note queried.
O’Shaughnessy’s note was essentially an aide memoire to himself. It was written on foot of a colleague’s request to all Bray firefighters to write down what they felt was wrong with the service, part of a long-running campaign with station management and with the ultimate overseer of the service, Wicklow County Council.
O’Shaughnessy dealt with issues he and colleagues felt they had been grappling with for years. It was their view that the service was poorly managed and that they, the firefighters, were inadequately trained and equipped for what was being asked of them.
Those in authority to whom they conveyed their concerns had not, they felt, addressed them adequately; it fact, they felt they were not really listened to at all. Now two firefighters were dead.
On June 20th last, Wicklow county manager Eddie Sheehy stood outside Dublin’s Criminal Courts of Justice building near the Phoenix Park. A full six years after the tragedy and after eight days of a trial for criminal responsibility, the council finally acknowledged much of what the firefighters had been saying – it was indeed guilty of multiple failures under health and safety at work legislation.
Suddenly, long before proceedings were expected to end and as expert witnesses for the prosecution were about to be called, the council changed its plea from not guilty to guilty.
It now admitted that it indeed failed to provide firefighters with proper training, adequate back-up, adequate control and communication systems during emergencies; clear rules of engagement for fighting a blaze and adequate systems for dealing with emergencies; also that it had failed to review risks on a regular basis to make sure, insofar as was possible, that it was looking after the wellbeing of its fire fighters.
Despite the admission of guilt, Sheehy made a statement outside court in which he asserted: “The deaths [of O’Shaughnessy and Murray] . . . were not as a consequence of the breaches of the Act of 2005 . . . Wicklow County Council again extends its deepest sympathy to the families of the deceased men, two very dedicated and brave firefighters.”
A statement issued simultaneously on his behalf by a public relations company asserted further that an amendment to one of the charges “acknowledges that the deaths of Sub-Officer Brian Murray and Firefighter Mark O’Shaughnessy were not as a consequence of the breaches of the Act of 2005”.
Listening to Sheehy’s comments, the families of the dead firefighters heard, again, what they regard as hollow platitudes of sympathy from a council employer that had repeatedly failed to live up to its responsibilities.
Others sources close to the multiple investigations into what happened were also surprised at Sheehy’s behaviour.
“It was the wrong tone,” said one senior source. “What did he achieve? He upset the family.”
The six-year saga that led to yesterday’s sentencing of Wicklow County Council to a fine of €350,000 plus costs of some €96,000 began at Adelaide Terrace off the Lower Dargle Road in Bray. It is a town and hinterland of some 32,000 people in north Wicklow whose many empty retail outlets speak of the effects of the recession.
Before September 2007, when the building was destroyed by the fire in which Murray and O’Shaughnessy died, the single-storey corner site at Adelaide Villas and Park Court had been home to several businesses, including at one stage, Haughton’s, a paint company.
By the time of the blaze, however, it was semi-derelict and unoccupied – save for the old car tyres, discarded fridges, bits of bedding, paper and household waste that had been dumped inside.
One of the previous occupants had installed some rather unorthodox insulation. Beneath the corrugated iron roof and in the rafters that held it up, old wooden pallets had been inserted and stuffed with newspaper – presumably in a bid to achieve greater winter warmth for those working there.
The dumping and related vandalism concerned the owner who in September 2007 asked her nephew, Garreth Nolan, to have a welder, Aiden O’Neill, seal shut a large sliding metal door to the side of the disused factory in the hope of stopping unauthorised access.
Nolan and O’Neill went to the factory at about 10am on September 26th. To power their equipment, they cadged access to electricity from a nearby house and set about their work, sealing the large metal door first from the inside, then the outside.
One of the residents, Bernadette Cash, was driving by and was struck by what was going on. “There was sparks everywhere,” she later told investigators into what happened. “I had to slow down driving because of the sparks.”
The investigators concluded that the fire which was about to ignite came from the same sparks.
“The cause of the fire was most probably due to the ignition source being the production of a spark or sparks from unprotected welding activities and falling among adjacent combustible materials that had been dumped within the yard,” concluded a June 2009 report by Dr Peter Mansi, then manager of the fire investigation group of the London Fire Brigade.
Mansi was asked to investigate the fire by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), which ran a parallel and to some extent overlapping investigation with the Garda. Their inquiries led to unprecedented Garda raids on Wicklow County Council offices and, extraordinarily, the formal arrest and questioning under caution of senior members of the local authority’s administrative staff, including county manager Eddie Sheehy, and senior assistant chief fire officers Joanne O’Connor and Tadgh O’Shea, and former chief fire officer Jim Dunphy.