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
However, for Horan and McCann inside the blazing Bray building, crawling first on knees, then on their stomachs, the foam spray was not only ineffective, it actually made matters worse.
“On my right, there were flames licking through the smoke so I tried to pulse [attack with short bursts] the dark smoke on the left,” McCann told gardaí.
“I opened the branch [hosepipe nozzle] and it had no effect other than it made it hotter because the steam from the foam was coming back at us, so I tried it on the right to stop the flames coming towards me. It had no effect – same again, more heat.
“At this stage I was really burning myself. I could feel the heat coming up through me, my arms were burning so I put the branch on the ground and sprayed it and the area in front of us because where we were lying was on fire.”
Repeatedly, McCann and Horan attacked the fire with foam and water but were beaten back each time, but they kept re-engaging, even when in one instance, McCann’s clothes ignited in the intense heat.
Numerous colleagues from Bray and Greystones were now at the scene. Eventually, the bodies of their colleagues were found and both were pronounced dead at the scene at 12.45pm.
Two parallel inquiries were launched into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Murray and O’Shaughnessy – one conducted by the Health and Safety Authority, the other by the Garda.
The first was led by Kevin Broderick, an engineer by profession and a long-standing inspector with the HSA. The Garda inquiry was led by detective garda Maurice Hickey from Bray station.
The families and colleagues of the dead men are unstinting in their praise of Broderick and Hickey and of Hickey’s family liaison colleague, Mervyn Butler. However, they are equally critical of managers inside Bray station and hostile towards Wicklow County Council, the overseeing body of the county’s fire service, and of the county manager Eddie Sheehy.
Their views on their managers and senior council officials are born, they say, of years of frustration pointing out what they see as deficiencies with the service and their feeling of not being listened to. Much of what they have to say is unprintable.
Broderick and Hickey worked in partnership, running parallel but separate inquiries. The HSA inquiry was done under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. The garda worked under the Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
It was unusual for gardaí to be working so intimately with another State agency, sharing information yet remaining separate. A high level of trust, not always seen between State agencies, was required and in this instance it seems to have worked.
The two sides met regularly. They would review their interviews and documents together, discuss where the investigation needed to go, agree who would go where and do what, and then do it.
Raid on offices
At 10am on February 23rd, 2010, a team of gardaí arrived at Wickow council’s headquarter offices in Wicklow town and sought access. Once inside, they seized paper files and computers. The computer hard drives were later examined by experts in erased data retrieval.
In May and June, four officials were arrested – county manager Sheehy and three members of the fire service. The case proved to be “extremely challenging”, according to one well-placed source. It was complex, involved a lot of forensic work and was the subject of political debate.
“We could not say that co-operation was not forthcoming,” added the source, “but co-operation is on a scale and Wicklow were not at the full co-operation level. They never behaved in a manner that was illegal but at every turn there were lawyers riding shotgun.”
Garda sources support this assertion, noting that while there was co-operation “within the law”, it had proved necessary to arrest people and question them under force of a formal caution.
Not long after his arrest, Sheehy attended a conference organised by the Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurance, a company that specialises in large-scale public liability insurance and has strong links to local government.
By coincidence, it is chaired by George Jones, a long-standing Wicklow councillor. The conference was attended by county managers and other key people in local government concerned with insurance.
It took place in the context of the Wicklow arrests and the implications of a March 2010 case in which, following the death of a truck driver, a Clare County Council engineer was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence for failing to identify the hazards and assess the risks of the workplace, so as to ensure, insofar as reasonably practicable, the safety of employees.
Based on Sheehy’s specific experience, although not relayed directly by him, delegates were told of the emotional effect of being arrested and of having to remove one’s tie and shoelaces before being placed into a Garda station cell. “He found the whole experience very traumatic,” the source said.
Peter Mansi, who had 30 years’ experience as a firefighter and subsequently as a fire investigator, thought the Bray case would – should – lead to what he terms a revolution in the Irish fire service.
“I really thought it would,” he said in an interview this week with The Irish Times. “From what I know of the Irish fire service, it seems to be about 20 years behind over here [in Britain] with regards to operational policies and procedures and the training and so on.”
He assesses what went on in Bray station watch room on the day of the fire as far below standard for a modern fire service. The call-out function has since been removed from Bray and is now channelled through Dublin Fire Brigade in Tara Street.
“It should be as it is [in Britain],” he asserts.
“You get a fire engine there with at least four to five people on it within five minutes . . . The control officer [in Bray] decided at one point he thought the fire was out and didn’t send anybody and then [after another call in] . . . there was no second driver available . . .
“So it’s all done like on a shoestring and seems to be almost run on goodwill. It is old fashioned and in 2007 when this occurred, even for an organisation that might be struggling financially, to be able to mobilise around the stations within a county should have been addressed without using an old-fashioned pager system.
“London Fire Brigade still use a pager system, don’t get me wrong, but it [Wicklow’s] obviously wasn’t working because Greystones never got the message.”
He also queries Wicklow County Council’s conduct in initially pleading not guilty, only to change plea to guilty midway through a trial and before independent witnesses could challenge them.
“It was a shame that they [the families and firefighters were] put through all that at the trial and when it came to their [Wicklow’s] turn, they changed their plea and avoided it.”