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
By 10.25am on September 26th, O’Neill had finished his welding and he and Nolan departed the area. Within 15 minutes, though, at 10.40am, emergency calls were being made to Bray Fire Brigade.
The first was from a building site worker, the next from a man out walking who stopped a council truck with three occupants and asked the driver to call the brigade, which he did, via his supervisor, Paul Wogan.
The men in the truck heard loud bangs, or explosions, from inside the burning disused factory. At about the same time, the building site worker again contacted the fire brigade but, oddly, was deemed to be calling to say the fire was going out.
Calls to the brigade were taken by fire control operator John Whiston, who was working alone, as was usual. Whiston’s job was to take emergency calls in the station’s watch room, assess their seriousness, and respond accordingly.
“I have had no formal training for my job,” he later told investigating gardaí. “I have learned from ongoing experience . . . I have received no formal training in the assessment of calls.”
Such was the seriousness of the unfolding situation, that Whiston shortly sought help in dealing with the emergency from two clerical officers at the fire station and from the canteen tea-lady.
When Paul Wogan came on the line, Whiston told him the fire had gone out, a view based, apparently, on what the building site worker allegedly said in his second call. Wogan assured Whiston that it had not; there was “a lot of smoke” coming from the disused factory, he said.
At 10.43am, Whiston used the Bray brigade’s paging system to alert the duty crew of the part-time service that there was a fire.
A tender was dispatched by 10.50am. On board were station officer Jim Maguire, who was in command; Tony Horan, an experienced firefighter but whose training did not include compartment fire behaviour; Martin Lyons, the driver and pump operator; and Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy.
About this time, a woman rang the station demanding to know why, since she alerted the brigade “20 minutes ago”, there were still no firefighters at the scene. Whiston told her he had not “received any calls from her about the incident”.
“I’m sure I didn’t receive any call from a female,” he later told Garda investigators.
Peter Mansi’s report states that the woman’s call to the station, which she asserts was her second, was witnessed by another firefighter, Eddie McCann, “who had just arrived on duty and believed that the call was not ‘friendly’,” wrote Mansi.
“I heard him [Whiston] talking to what I believe was a woman,” McCann told gardaí. “I think it was a woman because the last thing he said on the phone was ‘you do that, love’.
“The conversation between them did not sound friendly. When he hung up he said ‘Jesus’ and walked out of the room again.”
By this time, the initial fire tender and crew dispatched had arrived at the scene of the fire. Their first priority was to check that no one was inside the building. Murray and O’Shaughnessy put on their breathing apparatus and found a way in, via the corner entrance door as opposed to the metal sliding door behind which the fire was blazing.
They entered, equipped with a brand new foam-based fire-fighting system. Neither, however, had been trained in its use and, as equally untrained colleagues were to discover, foam operated totally differently to water in a real-life, confined, firefighting space. Also unknown to them, the hose was fitted with an incorrect nozzle which rendered it ineffective.
Inside the building, the fire had taken a firm grip. The flammable mix of debris on the floor – old tyres and timber, mainly – eventually ignited the DIY newspaper insulation and wooden pallets in the rafters, creating a lethal furnace of extreme heat that soon brought the roof down on the two firefighters.
As events were taking their dramatic and tragic turn at the fire, back at the station, news of the emergency was spreading. McCann commandeered the station’s four-wheel drive and headed down to the fire alone to help as the call went out for the station’s second crew to join the fight.
Within another minute, the call went out to Greystones, another part-time service in the nearby seaside town, seeking help from a third crew.
More firefighters began to arrive at Bray station but there was no driver for the second tender and they had to hang around waiting, hoping for a lift from Greystones. But the radio message alerts to Greystones – one at 11am and again at 11.07am – were apparently not received due to faulty equipment.
Eventually, at 11.10am, Whiston telephoned Greystones subofficer Derek Archer, using an automated, double-voice prompt system that sets off a pager alert. Within three minutes, Archer called Bray and said he did not get the previous but, nonetheless, he and his crew were on their way.
By now, the second group of firefighters in Bray had given up waiting. Instead, led by Ronan O’Sullivan, they commandeered the station’s hydraulic platform tender and headed down to the fire.
At 11.32, Greystones firefighters arrived at the scene.
At the fire, concern was growing for Murray and O’Shaughnessy who had failed to return from the blazing building.
Initially, there were insufficient crew on hand to go in after them: Jim Maguire had to remain out as he was in charge of the whole operation, Martin Lyons had to man the pump and Tony Horan could not go in on his own.
When McCann arrived, he put on breathing apparatus and with Horan got to work. McCann smashed a narrow window high on an external wall to let smoke escape and cut through another entrance door to give greater access.
Maguire told him to start using the hose, which was attached to the relatively new foam-based system known as Cafs, or compressed air foam system.
“I had never used the Cafs system in a building before the fire,” McCann told investigating gardaí. “I have had an introduction to Cafs when the system arrived but I have not had specific Cafs training.”
On July 3rd, three months before the fire, Browns Coachworks of Lisburn, Co Antrim, delivered to Bray a spanking new fire tender equipped with the Cafs system.
On delivery, firefighters were given no more than a familiarisation talk about the new machine. They were shown each lever and knob and told what the levers and knobs operated – but not how to operate them; not the circumstances in which to use the system and when not to use it.
There would be someone over soon from Britain to train them, said firefighters who spoke to The Irish Times on conditions of anonymity following a brigade order, dated April 29th, 2013, by the current chief fire officer, Aidan Dempsey, banning direct contact with the media.
Foam operates quite differently to water when used against fire. With water, firefighters typically attach a diffuser to the nozzle of the hose. When the water is pushed through it under pressure, the effect is to create a fine spray of water molecules. This breaks up the smoke, cools it and so the temperature drops.
“You keep doing that and you fight your way to the seat of the fire and you can put it out,” explained one firefighter. With foam, though, “it’s like a blanket”. It spews from the open pipe and in effect smothers the fire. It is highly effective when the seat of the fire has been engaged, often outdoors, in a blazing vehicle, for instance.