‘Unspeakable tragedy’ for family of three brothers who drowned

Fishing radio signalling beacon recalled after it was found to be ‘a dud’, inquest hears

An “unspeakable tragedy” fell upon an extended family when three brothers in their 40s who set off to work on lobster pots drowned after a catastrophic event caused their boat to sink, an inquest has heard.

Paul (49), Kenny (47) and Shane (44) Bolger who were all natives of the fishing village of Passage East in Co Waterford died on June 12th, 2013 after the signalling device which should have sent a beacon to the emergency services when their vessel ran into trouble failed to go off.

They left Dunmore East in their fishing boat, the Dean Leanne, at 7am that morning and the alarm was raised by their uncle after 5pm when he realised they hadn't returned to the harbour. The three bodies were found and recovered by the Coast Guard's rescue helicopter and the Dunmore East lifeboat after 6pm.

Thursday’s inquest in Tramore heard a fourth brother Anthony Bolger, who co-owned the boat with thre three men who died, didn’t go fishing with them as he had undergone heart surgery the previous April.


His evidence to the inquest and coroner Dr Eoin Maughan was that the EPIRB (electronic position indicating radio beacons) signalling device carried at all times by the boat was tested earlier in the year and found to be okay. The device washed up on Tramore beach and was found three days after the tragedy by a member of the public. The position of the button on the device suggested one of the brothers had tried to manually activate it. Subsequent testing found it to be "a dud," Anthony Bolger told the inquest under questioning from Elaine Morgan BL, representing the family.

He agreed that it “didn’t do its job”. That particular model of EPIRB was later recalled by its Australian manufacturers, Standard Communications PTY Ltd, following a safety alert.

The boat was gifted to the brothers by their father in 1989. Originally wooden, it was “fibre-glassed” and fitted with a new engine three years before the tragedy. All four brothers completed safety training in 2010. As well as the EPIRB which should have worked when manually activiated or automatically when it hit the water, the vessel also had a hand-held radio and nine flares.

The brothers' uncle, Joe Whitty, said he went off in the boat he skippered on the same morning and saw Paul, Kenny and Shane leaving the harbour in Dunmore East at 7am. He returned at 5pm and when he realised his nephews weren't back became worried as they were normally home before him. He contacted the Dunmore East lifeboat station and then set off himself to look for them between Dunmore East and Brownstown Head. "I later heard on VHF that three casualties had been recovered."

CPR was administered after the bodies were recovered but rigor mortis was already evident. Medical evidence was given by pathologist Dr Fergus McSweeney who found no external sign of any trauma that would have caused the deaths. His opinion was that death was caused by drowning, with hypothermia a contributory factor in each case.

The jury returned a verdict of death by drowning in each case, and agreed with the coroner to return a verdict of “misadventure”. The coroner explained that misadventure was “the unintended outcome to an intended action,” in this case “the Bolger brothers intended to go fishing that day but didn’t intend to end up in the water and die because of that”. He described the event as “an unspeakable tragedy visited upon the Bolger family”.

The jury agreed to add a rider to their verdict that EPIRB signalling devices which must be carried on all fishing vessels be periodically tested by the State.

They also recommended State funding be provided for the supply of personal alarm devices to all people who go out in fishing vessels, which would set off a signal if coming into contact with water, and that these also be tested on a regular basis.