Two men plunged to their deaths in the River Shannon after a safety mechanism on a crane, which was holding a steel cage carrying the men, failed to operate, a court heard on Wednesday.
Bryan Whelan (29) from O’Briensbridge, Co Clare, and TJ O’Herlihy (36) from Castleisland, Co Kerry, drowned as they could not escape from the steel cage.
Both stonemasons had been harnessed into the cage and were wearing life-jackets, as was legally required under health and safety regulations, while they carried out specialised repair works on the south side of Thomond Bridge in Limerick city on August 29th, 2015.
A safety mechanism aimed at preventing weight overloading on the crane failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on a wire rope that “snapped” which was holding the cage carrying the men above the river, said senior prosecuting counsel Shane Costelloe SC.
The incident occurred at about 3.40pm and was witnessed by members the public.
Video footage was played in court of the moment the “steel cage” plunged into the river.
A third worker, Paul Murphy from Askeaton, who was also working on the platform at the time, managed to free his harness and was rescued in the Shannon estuary by emergency first responders.
Separate investigations by the gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority followed resulting in criminal charges against two companies, Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd, Dock Road, Limerick, and Palfinger Ireland Ltd, Church Hill, Cloncollog, Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Both firms pleaded guilty at Limerick Circuit Criminal Court to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Palfinger supplied the winch crane to Nationwide on March 12th, 2003, but unbeknown to Palfinger, the crane’s user manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequently carrying out testing of the crane’s overload protection system, which it later emerged had failed on the day of the “catastrophic tragedy”.
The crane was mounted on to a flat-bed lorry on the bridge with an extendable telescopic winch that held the men in the platform cage via a wire rope or cable.
Palfinger pleaded guilty that it failed to take steps necessary to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane and its operations to ensure that when it was in use it would be safe.
Nationwide pleaded guilty that, being an employer, it failed to ensure that contracted workers were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare, and that it failed to ensure the winch crane was in a safe condition, in particular, the overload protection system, and “as a consequence TJ O’Herlihy and Bryan Whelan died”.
There were emotional scenes in court as Mr Costelloe read out a victim impact statement written by Mr O’Herilhy’s partner Therese “Tess” Wigsten, mother to their two young children Conor (10) and Katie (7), who all travelled to the hearing from their home in Sweden.
“Conor was three years old and Katie was six months when their Dad died, we were not the ‘typical or normal’ family because our son has a progressive mitochondrial disease and has special needs, he needs full-time help with everything,” wrote Ms Wigsten.
“My children have lost one of the most important persons in their life, their Dad; Katie didn’t even get to know him, Katie will never experience how it is to be ‘Daddy’s girl’.”
Conor Wigsten, wrote: “I miss my Dad, I wish he was here to help me, to carry me and play with me, I wish he could help me in school.”
Bryan Whelan’s bother, John Paul Whelan, speaking on behalf of his family, told the court: “What haunts us most as a family, other than being without Bryan, is the tragic circumstances of his death, it is a constant and conscious effort that weighs tirelessly on each of us to not dwell on Bryan’s final moments of fear and distress as we know he fought to survive on that fateful day.”
“Bryan was excited to be working so close to home and on a project such as Thomond Bridge, which he took great pride in. It’s hard to believe it ended in such a tragedy. The bridge now serves as a constant, painful reminder of the devastating and disastrous events of that day.”
Judge Tom O’Donnell said it would be “inappropriate” to deliver an immediate judgment given he had listened to a “significant amount of evidence and deeply poignant victim impact statements.”
He adjourned sentencing to October 7th.