There was an intervention at the Bray fire fighters inquest today by the garda who was in charge of the investigation. Detective Garda Maurice Hickey spoke up from the body of the court.
Proceedings into the deaths of firefighters Brian Murray (46)and Mark O'Shaughnessy (25), who died on September 26th 2007, while fighting a fire in a disused factory in Co Wicklow, were halted by the coroner, Dr Brian Farrell. Counsel for Wicklow County Council, Luán Ó Braonáin, SC, who was leading his witness, Michael Slattery, a fire investigator hired by the Council, said he felt he had been ambushed.
“I need to clarify this matter before we go any further,” said the coroner Dr Farrell as he adjourned the inquest until May 1st.
The unexpected turn of events centred around a partly charred and crushed five litre tin can with a label on it indicating the contents at one time were Granyte, an industrial standard lacquer that is highly flammable. The last occupant of the disused factory in which the blaze occured and the two men died, a joiner named Alan Ryan, had already told the inquest that the can was not there when he vacated the premises in 2006.
For some days at the inquest, Mr Ó Braonáin has been questioning expert witnesses retained by the Council as to the possibility that liquid inside the can may have expanded during the blaze, creating vapours that blew off the screw top cap and issued into the inferno, causing a fireball which incapacitated the man and led to their deaths.
It had also been suggested that one of the late fire fighters may triggered the event by stepping on the can.
Many photographs of the can have been shown to the jury and the can itself has been brought to the court for examination by jurors and witnesses for the Council, one of whom had not seen it before but wrote a report saying it probably caused a fireball.
Yesterday's dramatic development occurred when Michael Slattery of Slattery and Associates of Dublin was giving evidence. He had been hired by the council on the day of the blaze as its main external fire investigator and was brought to the site for two hours on the 27th by senior Wicklow fire officials, then Chief Fire Officer, Jim Dunphy, and two senior assistant chief fire officers, Joanne O'Connor and Tadhg O'Shea.
Mr Slattery explained his role to the coroner and was being taken through his report by Mr Ó Braonáin, with the aid of photographs projected onto several screens in the court room. As he did so, there was an interjection, from the body of the court, by Detective Garda Maurice Hickey, the lead garda in the criminal investigation into the men’s deaths, which that led to the Council being fined €355,000, with €96,000 costs, after admitting multiple breaches of health and safety at work laws.
“Can I clarify?” Garda Hickey asked as Mr Slattery was giving his evidence. “That photograph you took on the 27th that we’re seeing there. That’s in situ, not moved, that can?”
Mr Slattery indicated yes.
“I’ll show a photograph of the 26th then,” responded Det Garda Hickey, stepping towards the projector.
As he placed his iPad on the projector an image was relayed to the screens, there was a gasp from relatives of the dead men sitting in the public seating of the court.
“What are we seeing there,” asked the coroner.
“The point I’m making,” said Detective Garda Hickey, “is that the can is not there on the 26th but it is there on the 27th.”
It was explained that Garda Hickey’s photograph was taken by garda scenes of crime forensic investigators on the day of the blaze, within hours of it being extinguished, and while the scene was sealed and under their control. That evening, their control of the scene was relinquished.
"That's the first time I've seen that photograph," said Mr Slattery.
"Maybe we should pause for a moment and just look at this," said the coroner. "I think this is the first time we have been made aware of this."
“It is,” said Mr Ó Braonáin with emphasis. “It is certainly the first time I’ve been made aware of it.”
“I think we’re all taken by surprise,” said Dr Farrell. “I don’t want someone put at a disadvantage because of this.”
“I agree,” said Mr Ó Braonáin.
“This has just emerged right now as far as I’m concerned,” said Dr Farrell.
There was discussion between lawyers representing both families, Garda Hickey, the Health and Safety Authority inspector, Kevin Broderick, and Dr Farrell as to when various documents were circulated to relevant parties in both the criminal case and the inquest.
“Mr Slattery’s reports were furnished to prosecution as far ago as May if not earlier, perhaps June, 2013,” said Mr Ó Braonáin. “I have to say I’m surprised to hear it being observed that this is the first time that Mr Slattery’s photograph has been seen by Garda Hickey and, if I may be forgiven for saying so, a bit of an air of ambush about what has just happened.”
Dr Farrell: “No, it’s not an ambush at all. . .”
Coroner: Is this the first time that either of you [Colm Condon, SC, for the O’Shaughnessy family, and Mr Ó Braonáin] were aware there was a garda forensic examination?
Mr Ó Braonáin: “Yes.”
Dr Farrell then asked Det Garda Hickey if he was saying there was a difference between the garda photograph and Mr Slattery’s photograph. “I’m saying,” replied Garda Hickey, “that on the 26th, that can is not in that position.”
“I need to clarify this matter before we go any further,” said the coroner.
Earlier, an explosions engineer from the University of Leeds told the inquest that the tin can, possibly containing flammible liquid, could have ignited, creating a fireball and killing them.
Dr Herodotos Phylaktou said he reached his conclusion after examing photographs of the aftermath of the blaze sent to him by Mr Slattery. The can was produced in the coroner's court, the first occasion that Dr Phylaktou had seen or handled it.
The can showed evidence of scorching on his upper end but the bottom half was comparatively unscathed. The can was not burst but has been partly crushed and was angular. Photographs from the fire showed that a circular screw top was found immediately beside the opening at the top of the can.
Dr Phylaktou’s hypothesis was that radiant heat from the blaze heated liquid inside the can, causing it to vapourise. Pressure within the can then caused the top to be burst off, releasing the vapour into the compartment in which were the two fire fighters, causing a fireball that engulfed and incapacitated them.
There was, he argued, no evidence of a flash-over, as suggested by an independent forensic fire analyst, Dr Peter Mansi, but he acknowledged this could not be "totally excluded".