Inquest hears of importance of carbon monoxide monitors

Father and children died after crisp wrapper blocked chimney

Vicky Barnes, daughter of Susan Wallwork, at Sligo Coroner’s Court yesterday. She supported calls for the installation of carbon monoxide alarms and said people should think about what they throw onto fires. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell

Vicky Barnes, daughter of Susan Wallwork, at Sligo Coroner’s Court yesterday. She supported calls for the installation of carbon monoxide alarms and said people should think about what they throw onto fires. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell

Wed, Apr 3, 2013, 17:17

Householders were yesterday urged to install carbon monoxide monitors after an inquest heard the “silent killer” claimed the lives of a father and two children as they sat watching television in December 2011.

The jury at Sligo Coroner’s Court also urged people to think twice about what they throw onto fires, after hearing about the “freak” circumstances when a crisp wrapper thrown onto a dying coal fire blocked the chimney causing carbon monoxide to be released into the family sitting room.

The scene was described by coroner Dr Des Moran as one of the saddest he had ever come across.

The television and Christmas tree lights were still on when the bodies of 52-year-old Trevor Wallwork, his 12-year-old daughter Kimberley and his nine-year-old son Harry were discovered in the sitting room of their home about a mile from the village of Gurteen, Co Sligo, on December 18th, 2011.

The jury was told that a plastic bag from a crisp multipack was thrown onto a coal fire which was not hot enough to melt it, but filled it with gas “like a hot-air balloon”, so that it blew up and became lodged in the chimney, obstructing it.

Chief fire officer Paul Coyle who attended the scene said that death would have occurred within minutes given the high levels of carbon monoxide released. Mr Coyle pointed out the chimney flue had been recently cleaned and was in good condition.

When firefighters and gardaí arrived at the scene they found Mr Wallwork sitting in an armchair facing the television with a blanket over his knees and his head slumped to one side. His two children were lying on the floor. All three were pronounce dead at the scene.

Mr Coyle told the jury that after climbing up on the roof he concluded that the chimney was obstructed and, using a tongs, removed the crisp bag which was 1.2m from the top.

Mr Coyle pointed out that the toxic carbon monoxide gases which were released could not be seen or smelt. He said carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in all homes using any kind of combustible fuel to prevent such a tragedy recurring.

Coroner Dr Moran was told that Mr Wallwork’s wife Susan, who was in Sligo General Hospital being treated for cancer at the time of the tragedy, had died six months later.

Her daughter Vicky Barnes, who raised the alarm, said she hoped that lessons would be learned from the tragedy. Speaking after the inquest she supported calls for the installation of carbon monoxide alarms and said people should think about what they throw onto fires.

Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis, who carried out the postmortems, found that the cause of death in all three cases was carbon monoxide poisoning. He told the jury that levels were “extremely high”.

Echoing the calls for carbon monoxide alarms to be installed, Dr Moran pointed out that houses today tended to be better sealed which reduced ventilation, making monitors even more crucial. He said that carbon monoxide was “a silent killer” which people could not smell or see.

Finding in accordance with the evidence that the deaths were accidental and caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, the jury urged people to be conscious of what they throw on fires and to be aware of the importance of having their chimneys cleaned .

Mr Wallwork, originally from Salford in Britain, and his family had moved to Ireland six years earlier and his children attended the local Mullaghroe primary school.