Brothers killed by toxic gas in sewer, inquest hears

Alan and Stephen Harris were overcome by fumes while working in a sewer at Portmarnock in 2015

A toxic gas incident that claimed the lives of two brothers almost killed a fireman attempting to rescue them, an inquest heard.

Brothers Alan (45) and Stephen Harris (32) were overcome by fumes while working in an underground sewer at Drumnigh Woods, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, on June 10th, 2015. They were taken from the sewer and taken to hospital but died of hypoxia due to toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide.

Alan Harris, of Hazelbury Park, Clonee, Dublin, died at Beaumont Hospital within hours. His brother Stephen, of Monasterboice Road, Crumlin, died two days later.

Pumps engineer Gabriel Hoyle was a subcontractor working on the same job. He said Stephen Harris climbed down the chamber and was heard shouting for help saying: "Alan, I can't breathe."



Mr Hoyle said he appeared disorientated but managed to safely exit the chamber.

When Mr Hoyle was leaving for lunch, the brothers planned to descend the 30ft pump chamber to clear out sewage. Before reaching his car, he heard shouts for help.

“Stephen was frantic. He was standing on the ladder shouting for Alan and then said, ‘lads help me, Alan’s after falling down.’ His voice was deteriorating as if he was being overcome. He was saying, ‘please help me, help me get Alan’,” Mr Hoyle said.

He told Dublin Coroner’s Court that he shouted to Stephen telling him: “Get out now while you still can.”

Mr Hoyle added: “But he carried on down. The last thing I saw was him falling under the sewage at the bottom of the ladder.”

Dust mask

Fireman Ger Coughlan responded to the emergency call at 2.30pm. Wearing breathing apparatus, he climbed down into waist-height sewage. He said there was water entering the chamber and the level was rising. His mask was displaced as he tried to lift one of the injured and he took a gulp of air. “It was like someone pressed a switch, cutting off all my energy,” he said.

The court heard the brothers were wearing wader boots and rain jackets and that Stephen Harris was wearing a dust mask.

Health and Safety Authority inspector Frank Kerins said the job required specialist equipment in accordance with confined space regulations, including a gas detector and breathing apparatus.

The jury returned verdicts of misadventure and recommended that public attention be drawn to the dangers of toxic gases arising from sewers.

The Harris family thanked all emergency services, particularly Mr Coughlan.

“They hope that some lessons will be learned from this tragic incident,”their solicitor said.