‘Sudden catastrophic event’ led to deaths of Bray fire fighters

Inquest hears two men’s deaths would have have been almost immediate


A sudden catastrophic event in which extreme heat created an environment incompatible with life led to the deaths of Bray fire fighters Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy, their inquest heard today.

Death would have been immediate or would have followed very rapidly after both men were rendered unconscious, Dr Michael Curtis, the deputy State Forensic Pathologist, told the Dublin Coroner’s Court.

Mr Murray (46) and Mr O’Shaughnessy (25) died on September 26th 2007 while fighting a fire in a disused factory in Bray, Co Wicklow.

At the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court last October, Wicklow County Council, their employer as the county’s fire authority, admitted a series of health and safety breaches and training omissions for which it was fined €355,000 and costs estimated at €96,000. It denies any responsibility for the men’s death, however.

Giving evidence to the inquest today, Dr Curtis said he carried out autopsies on the bodies of both men at Loughlinstown Hospital on the day they died. In both cases, he recorded the cause of death as “fire death”.

Toxicology tests showed that neither man had alcohol or drugs in their system at the time of their deaths and neither had sustained trauma injury. There was no soot in their airways but both men displayed evidence of thermal damage to their air intake passages. Neither man was otherwise ill in any way.

Dr Curtis said the protective clothing worn by both men showed evidence of having experienced extreme heat “that would provide an environment that didn’t support life”. Both bodies displayed evidence of having endured extreme heat and death, said Dr Curtis, would have been “immediate or very rapid”.

Dr Curtis was not able to say whether the catastrophic event that occurred was a fire flash-over, as claimed by an independent forensic fire investigator Dr Peter Mansi, or a fireball, as hypothesised by another expert witness, Christopher Large, giving evidence for Wicklow County Council.

In either instance, “that would provide an environment which would not support life. . . there might have been a very brief period of heat discomfort, depending on how rapid the event was, and then there would follow confusion, coma and death very rapidly”.

The protective clothing worn by both men showed signs of being exposed to extreme heat, he said. Pictures shown to the jury showed Mr Murray’s fire fighters protective clothing charred and badly disintegrated. Mr O’Shaughnessy’s protective gear was damaged less severely.

Asked by William Hamilton, counsel for the Murray family, whether it was possible to determine the time of death, Dr Curtis said no and added that “unconsciousness would have been extremely rapid and death would have followed”.

Before he left the witness stand, Dr Curtis expressed his condolences to both families.

Earlier, the inquest heard from Dr Nick Vaughan of the UK Health and Safety Laboratory who, with colleagues James Bolsover and an R Bettis, examined the protective clothing worn by both men, on behalf of the Irish Health and Safety Authority.

Dr Vaughan said both sets of protective clothing had evidence of “prolonged exposure to intense radiant heat”.

Asked if this could have been caused also by a fire ball, he replied that “the severe damage I have seen is not consistent” with that but was consistent with exposure to radiant heat. Even a fireball of eight seconds duration would not necessarily cause the level of damage he saw.

“People walk out of that,” he said.

Dr Vaughan agreed with Luán Ó Braonáin, SC for Wicklow County Council, it was a “reasonable assumption” that there could have been a fireball at one stage in the blaze incapacitating Mr Murray and Mr O’Shaughnessy who were then exposed to radiant heat. However, was not possible to distinguish between a fire ball and a flash-over, said Dr Vaughan.

“After some initiating event,” said Dr Vaughan concluded in his and his colleagues’ report, “the casualties were knocked down and totally incapacitated. The observed equipment damage then took place over an extended period during which time the casualties remained motionless.”

Surface temperatures within the compartment where the men died would have been more than 400 to 450 degrees centigrade during efforts by colleagues to rescues them, causing skin burns to fire fighters within about 20 seconds he told the inquest.

Alan Ryan, a joiner and who had leased the property in which the men died, told the inquest that around 85 per cent of the space between the ceiling and the corrugated metal pitch roof was stuffed with wooden pallets and crumpled up, stiff brown paper. He assumed these had been put there by previous occupants, who were cardboard manufacturers, for insulation purposes.

The inquest has heard previously that radiant heat from above was a significant factor in creating what Dr Mansi says was a “partial flash-over” generating extreme radiant heat in the compartment room where the men died.

Maria Melia, the acting director of services with Wexford County Council who is also the county’s chief fire officer and who was called at the request of Wicklow County Council, said that in Wexford, a caller stating that smoke was issuing from a building, which the recipient of the call knew to be an industrial premises in a residential area, would prompt the dispatch of two fire tenders.

A call stating only “smoke issuing” from a building would prompt the dispatch of one tender only.