Anatomy of a car crash: Part 1

At 4.40am on January 1st two men died in the first fatal road crash of 2014, near Ballina, Co Mayo. This series of articles - now published in full on irishtimes.com - investigates the collision and asks why it occurred

Taxi driver Gearóid 'Skull' Scully was killed in the first fatal road collision of 2014 in Ballina. His partner Lorraine speaks of her grief and the plans they shared for their future together. Video: Niamh Guckian

 

At 4.40am on January 1st two men died in the first fatal road crash of 2014, near Ballina, Co Mayo. This series of articles - now published in full on irishtimes.com - investigates the collision and asks why it occurred

 

The first Irish road deaths of 2014 occurred near Ballina, Co Mayo, when the year was just hours old. At about 4.40am on New Year’s Day two men died in a collision on a high-quality stretch of the N26.

The crash touched dozens more people: relatives, friends, paramedics, firefighters, gardaí, mortuary staff and hospital medics. In the months since, reporter Peter Murtagh has met many of these people, to discover how the collision happened – and why.

Anatomy of a Car Crash is the result of that investigation.

It had been a good night at the Broken Jug, one of the most popular pubs and restaurants in Ballina. Hundreds had been in. “They were wedged,” as one man put it.

It was New Year’s Eve, and people in the north Co Mayo town were determined to let their hair down. Every pub and restaurant had done well, but now, at 4am on New Year’s Day, most people had gone home or were making their way there.

The flat tyre

The Broken Jug had fallen quiet. Tom Lenehan, the floor supervisor, was strolling over to his car when Joe, one of the pub’s security men, called out to him, “You’ve a flat tyre there, Tom.”

Sure enough, one of Tom’s rear tyres was completely down. It was okay, though. Joe had a foot pump, and between them they got enough air into the tyre to get Tom to the nearest petrol station.

Inside the pub, Maya, the manager, wanted to stand everyone a New Year’s drink, to thank them for the year just gone and for the hard graft of the night just ended.

Lenehan had little more than a mouthful of his half-pint of stout before slipping out. “Pour this away . . . I can’t stay,” he said to the barman and made his way to the door.

It was gone 4am, and his cottage, in Killasser, near Swinford, was about 30km down the Foxford road. That tyre with the slow puncture wouldn’t stay up for ever.

The party

Lots of people had a good time in Ballina on New Year’s Eve and into the small hours of New Year’s Day. They included a 15-strong party of friends from Dublin staying at the Mount Falcon Hotel, a 19th-century country house-style hotel set in 40 hectares of parkland, a few kilometres south of the town, on the N26 road to Foxford.

Among them were Fiona McHugh and her partner, Paul Byrne, owners of Fallon & Byrne, the high-end Dublin grocery, restaurant and off-licence, Fiona McHugh’s sister, Karen McHugh; Karen’s young daughter and her friend; Clodagh Keating, a friend of Karen’s; and Terence Beagan, Karen’s boyfriend, who worked in the music business.

Terence Beagan and Karen McHugh checked into the Mount Falcon in mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve, into one of the hotel’s lakeside cottages, and then went into Ballina, to Paddy Jordan’s pub, where they met their friends. According to McHugh, during 45 minutes in Jordan’s, she had a glass of wine, while Beagan had a coffee, “as he was driving us back” to the hotel.

Back in their lakeside cottage they got ready for dinner in the hotel, a Victorian limestone house about 400m away, perched on a slope that gave it a panoramic view over parkland and lake.

“Terence drove us to the door of the Mount Falcon, as we were in high heels,” Keating said later. The two children stayed in the cottage, watching a film.

Beagan left the car, a maroon Mercedes-Benz coupe, in the hotel’s car park, to the right of the main building, and joined the others for dinner.

Karen McHugh’s recollection of the night, as recounted to the Garda more than two months later, is that she and Beagan had “four or five glasses of wine over dinner” before repairing to the bar around 11.30pm. There, she said, she drank a further “two or three pints” of beer. Beagan drank bottled beer; Karen told the Garda she could not remember how much.

Statements to Garda

Recollections differ about what happened at the hotel after the New Year was rung in.

According to Karen McHugh, she and Beagan stayed in the bar until about 2.30am, then walked back to their cottage. She is supported in this by her friend Clodagh Keating, who told the Garda the same, giving them a statement the same day as Karen – March 13th, 2014 – and in the same place: Rathgar in Dublin.

But the hotel’s owner, Alan Moloney, has a different memory of the evening. On April 7th he told the Garda that Karen McHugh had remained at the bar until about 3am and was “the last to leave from the group she was in”.

“I believe that Terence had left prior to Karen leaving, as Karen and Clodagh both told me later that day that they persuaded Terence to walk back to the Lodge and made sure he did not drive, as he was fairly drunk at that stage when he was leaving the bar,” Moloney told the police.

At 4.37am the hotel’s CCTV cameras recorded a man walking across the car park. He was carrying his overnight bag, which was filled with his clothes. He got into the maroon Mercedes and drove away.

The taxi drivers

Like Moloney, Seán Redmond and Gearóid Scully had also been working flat out for the night. The pair ran Celtic Cabs, one of Ballina’s best-known taxi firms, and New Year’s Eve was great for business for them, too. They worked the town together, keeping in touch by radio, carving up the available fares.

 

Earlier in the evening Scully had been in the centre of town; he took time out to drop into An Bolg Buí, a small pub on the bank of the River Moy, just by the ridge pool – a favourite fishing spot of Jack Charlton’s, as locals like to point out.

Scully’s girlfriend, Lorraine Devlin – she called him Skull; he called her Lo Lo – had been getting worried as midnight approached, fretting that he wouldn’t take time to pause from the hectic round of ferrying people here and there. She wanted them to be together as 2013 grew into 2014.

“Don’t worry,” he said when she called him before 12. “I’ll be there.”

Just before midnight Scully ambled into the crowded Bolg Buí. He didn’t stay long enough to have a drink, but Lo Lo got her hug. “I got me cuddle, and a kiss and a laugh, and then he said, ‘I’ll see ya later.’ ”

After a while Lorraine headed up town with her daughter, Rachel, and Mary, the girlfriend of one of Scully’s best friends, John McAree, a chef at the Ridge Pool Hotel. They had a couple of drinks in another pub and then a burger in Supermac’s. On Hill Street she rang Skull again.

“He said, ‘Meet me down at the end of Hill Street, I’m coming there now.’ So we went down, and he dropped Mary off,” says Lorraine. “Then we dropped Rachel out home, and then we picked up two or three runs.

“I said I wanted to go home, but Skull said, ‘I’ve a young lad at the back of Brennan’s, and he’s been waiting for me a while, and I’m not leaving him no longer . . . So I’ll collect him and then I’ll leave you home.’”

After sorting out the young lad Scully brought Lo Lo home, to their corner semidetached house, at 16 The Commons, in a modest housing estate on the south side of the town. He told her he was too busy to stay, and left about 4.10am. “I’ll see ya later,” he said.

The forgotten shoes

Not long afterwards a taxi call went out from the Mount Falcon. Someone from the wedding party wanted a taxi to take them to their bed and breakfast.

Donal and Lucy Franks from Birr, in Co Offaly, had decided close to 4.30am that it was time for bed. They asked the barman to call them a taxi, and he dialled Celtic Cabs, the hotel’s favourite taxi company.

Seán Redmond was dealing with a fare, so Gearóid Scully responded.

The Franks sat into the back seat of Scully’s Skoda Superb, and the three quickly fell into conversation about the evening just gone and where they were all from.

At 4.36am Scully drove out of the Mount Falcon gates and turned right, heading south towards Foxford and Patricia Kelly’s B&B. Scully chatted in his strong Dublin accent, and by the time they reached the house the Franks knew all about his love of fishing and why he had come to live in Ballina.

As she got out of the taxi Lucy Franks remembered that she had forgotten her high heels. No problem, said Scully: he’d call the hotel and have them left for her at reception, for collection in the morning.

The fare was €10. The Franks paid, and, Happy New Years exchanged, Scully drove back towards Ballina.

The maroon Mercedes

Two minutes after Scully had driven out of the gates of the Mount Falcon with the Franks and turned right, another car, a maroon Mercedes coupe, 02-D-59483, also left the hotel car park, but it turned left, towards Ballina, on the N26.

The near miss

Further along the same road Tom Lenehan, the Broken Jug floor supervisor, pulled into the Topaz garage on the southern edge of Ballina and fully inflated his rear tyre.

Job done, he drove back out on to the road and resumed his run home, back along the N26 towards Foxford, nothing much on his mind save getting there and into his bed.

Suddenly he saw a car hurtling towards him. It was coming straight at him, no mistake. One of them was on the wrong side of the road.

For a second – a millisecond – he wondered if he was on the wrong side.

“For a second you doubt yourself. What have I done wrong? Not what somebody else is doing wrong.”

But, no, he was on the proper side.

Acting on instinct, Lenehan swerved his car on to the hard shoulder, avoiding a head-on collision by seconds at most.

Lenehan had an awareness of the other car racing past in that instant, but no firm details. He didn’t know that it was a maroon Mercedes coupe.

He didn’t stop but drove on, almost detached from what had just happened – and not happened.

As he passed the Mount Falcon he marvelled that if the incident had occurred where he was then, where there is no hard shoulder, it could have ended very differently.

Around this moment, on the other side of the road, Scully’s taxi passed Lenehan, having dropped the Franks at their B&B. Scully was heading back into Ballina. Lenehan didn’t see him drive past.

The wrong turn

Closer to town the maroon Mercedes coupe stopped. It had been heading towards Ballina, but now it turned around, the driver apparently deciding that he didn’t want to go there – or perhaps realising that he was going the wrong way in the first place.

Turned around, the Mercedes backtracked along the road to Foxford, heading south towards where the N26 eventually links with the N5 main road to Dublin.

This time the car was on the correct side of the road.

A well-marked highway

The N26 at Ballinahaglish, the townland between the Mount Falcon and Ballina, is a wide, fairly new road slicing through the countryside. It has a broad, sweeping curve that is hardly noticeable on this stretch of noticeably well-marked highway.

Two paramedics, an ambulance driver named Eddie Scully (no relation to Gearóid) and his colleague Wolfgang Schmidt, were working a shift that started at 9pm on New Year’s Eve and ended at 8am on New Year’s Day. In the early hours of the morning they had brought a patient to Mayo General Hospital, in Castlebar, and were now driving back to the ambulance base in Ballina.

This was an empty run home, and they travelled at a leisurely 80-90 km/h, without flashing lights or sirens, on the 100km/h N26. As they passed the Mount Falcon they kept a safe 30m or so behind the silver Skoda, 05-DL-6200, ahead of them.

The night was cold, but there was no rain or frost, says Schmidt, who was sitting in the ambulance’s passenger seat. Eddie Scully saw nothing unusual, either: the lights on the Skoda were dipped, as were the lights of a car approaching on the other side of the road.

No other vehicles were around.

The smash

It happened at about 4.40am.

Without warning or indication the Mercedes coupe coming from Ballina veered across the N26 – “at what appeared to be almost a 45-degree angle”, the ambulance driver said later.

There was an enormous bang as the front of the Merc ploughed into the driver-side front of the Skoda, catapulting it into the air.

As the airborne Skoda shot towards his ambulance Eddie Scully swerved right.

Debris was sprayed over the ambulance like shrapnel; oil and muck and bits and pieces covered the windscreen, clouding Eddie Scully’s vision. He slammed on the brakes and brought the ambulance to a halt.

His first instinct was to try to clear the glass with his wipers, to see what had just happened.

The emergency call

Eddie Scully’s first-responder training kicked in. He immediately put on the vehicle’s blue flashing light, to warn anyone coming along the road, and turned the ambulance around, so he could use its front lights to illuminate the crash scene. Then he radioed ambulance control at Mayo General.

At 4.42am control dispatched a second ambulance. Rachel McMeehan, Eddie’s colleague at ambulance control, noticed that he sounded shaken.

The two paramedics got out of the ambulance and raced to the two stricken cars. Smoke poured from both engines, but there were no flames. The stench of spilt fuel was powerful; their biggest fear was that both cars were about to erupt.

They approached the Mercedes first.

Eddie Scully shone his torch and saw a man in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving and appeared trapped. The paramedic smashed the driver’s door window and, reaching inside, checked for signs of breathing and pulse.

There was neither.

The two moved fast to the Skoda. Its driver had been shoved back into the rear seat and was also trapped. The door was jammed. Again, they smashed the window to lean inside and examine him as best they could.

Again, no pulse or signs of breathing.

Grabbing the defibrillator from the ambulance, the paramedics ripped open both men’s shirts in turn and attached small pads, known as dots: two to each shoulder, two on to their hips. On to the dots they then clipped leads connected to the defib, switching it on.

The monitor showed nothing: no rhythm, no other sign of life; no movement at all.

“Flatline. No heartbeat, no circulation,” Schmidt said later.

Applying the defibrillator confirmed what both paramedics thought from the initial evidence of their own eyes. At 4.54am, 12 minutes after his first call, Eddie Scully radioed McMeehan at ambulance control.

Both drivers were dead, he told her. McMeehan stood down the second ambulance.

By now the road was crawling with gardaí and firefighters. The paramedics could do nothing more, and they left soon afterwards.

Identifying the first victim

Minutes later Seán Redmond, Gearóid Scully’s partner in Celtic Cabs, emerged from the area behind the Mount Falcon and turned his car on to the N26 again. Looking right, he could see blue flashing lights down the road towards Foxford.

Scully was coming from down there, he thought to himself. Hope he’s okay. The more he thought about it the more worried he became. He rang the Mount Falcon night porter, Michael Gillard.

Yes, Scully had been there, all right. Got the fare and left, said Gillard.

Redmond radioed Scully. But all he heard back was static.

He approached the Garda roadblock and asked about the accident. He gave Scully’s registration number.

“I knew then by the colour of their faces,” he said later.

Gearóid Scully was dead.

Lo Lo was asleep in bed, unaware of the tragedy that had just entered her life.

A sense of calm

Within seconds of Eddie Scully and Wolfgang Schmidt alerting ambulance control to the crash they had witnessed at about 4.40am, an ever-widening pool of people was drawn into the events.

Conor Smyth, a Mayo County Fire Service station officer in Ballina, was at home in bed when his pager alert went off at 4.45am. The same thing happened to all of his 11 colleagues on call, as their pagers sprang to life.

Ambulance control also alerted WestDoc, an out-of-hours GP service in Ballina, the town’s Garda station and Campwest, a sophisticated fire-service mobilisation and control centre in Castlebar. Campwest sent a computer-generated telex message with all essential information – location being the most important – to Ballina fire station.

Ballina Garda station is on Lord Edward Street, about 100m from the N26 and about four kilometres from the crash. Garda Seán Hough, Garda Bryan McGuire and Sgt Amanda Gaynor left the station with a local GP, Blaise Brunker. The station’s patrol car, Alpha Charlie 101, driven by Garda Patrick Garvey, accompanied by Garda Kevin Carey, also headed for the crash,

When they arrived Gaynor looked inside the Skoda. She knew Gearóid Scully, but, like all the emergency-service people present, didn’t recognise the body in the Mercedes.

The hectic rush that had brought the first responders to the scene was now replaced by a sense of calm. There was no one to save after all.

Dr Brunker was asked to take a look and make the formal pronouncements, which he did. The first man’s death was recorded at 5.12am; Gearóid Scully’s was recorded at 5.15am.

Gaynor rang the duty superintendent, Joe Doherty, and briefed him, and also called Jim Reagan, a county-council general service supervisor, asking him to get road diversions in place.

Moving the bodies

The first task of a firefighter at the scene of a road crash is to make the area safe to work in. A 100m cordon keeps the public back. A two-metre cordon is set up around the crash scene itself, illuminated by specialist portable lighting.

When Smyth and colleagues began to examine the wreck of the Mercedes, gases were still rising visibly from it. They hosed down the engine with water to prevent escaping fuels igniting.

The firefighters’ task was to extract the two bodies from their respective cars.

“It didn’t help that we knew [Gearóid] Scully,” one of them remarked afterwards.

It helped a little that the bodies did not exhibit severe external damage. Road crashes do not happen neatly, and first responders regularly come upon smashes in which people have been catapulted through windows, losing limbs in the process, or smashed against parts of their vehicles – dashboards and door and window pillars in many cases. Cleaning up after such a collision is not a task for the faint-hearted.

The driver of the Mercedes lay slumped, his upper body leaning into the well of the car. His seat belt was still on, but the force of impact had fused it, almost like a weld, into the clothes on his chest.

To get at the body the firefighters had to use their Holmatro, a heavy-duty pneumatic cutting tool, to slice the driver’s door off its hinges and cut the back off the driver’s seat.

Firefighters have an enhanced, and often strongly expressed, respect for a dead person, a respect for their body and the person they were. “There’s always huge respect shown for the person,” one firefighter explained. “For the 10, 15 or 20 minutes you are there they’re one of your own. You take care of them.”

The Mercedes driver’s body was removed slowly and carefully, then laid on the ground, first on to a blanket the firefighters spread out and then into a black, standard-issue body bag.

The firefighters then moved on to the second car, Gearóid Scully’s Skoda.

Scully wasn’t in the driver’s seat. The impact when the Mercedes slammed into the front of his car ripped the engine from the mooring bolts attaching it to the chassis, and smashed it through the dashboard, into Scully’s chest.

The velocity carried the mass onwards, lifting Scully from the driver’s seat and hurling him into the rear seat, stopping only then, pinning Scully down, the engine block on his abdomen. Again, firefighters used their Holmatro to cut off the rear nearside door and extricate Scully’s body, placing it also on to a blanket and then into a body bag, slowly and reverently.

Coroner, priest, undertaker

At 5.49am Sgt Gaynor called the coroner for north Co Mayo, Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald, and told her about the crash and the two deaths. Fitzgerald gave her permission for the bodies to be removed from the scene.

A local priest, Fr Tom Doherty, attended and prayed by the bodies.

They were eventually removed by a Castlebar undertaker, Michael Kilcoyne, who had been on call on New Year’s Eve, as he is a nondrinker. “They said there was a fatality – two in fact – and so we went out with two removal coffins.”

These are reusable brown-plastic coffin-shaped shells for taking a body from its place of death. Kilcoyne drove the bodies by hearse to the morgue attached to Mayo General Hospital.

Who was the second man?

By this stage, while everyone knew that one of the dead drivers was the local man Gearóid Scully, the identity of the Mercedes driver was still a mystery. He had nothing on his person to suggest who he was. Only later would his wallet be found in the wreckage.

As the bodies were being removed gardaí established that the vehicle was registered to Paul Byrne, one of the guests at the Mount Falcon, where he was staying with his partner, Fiona McHugh.

And so, when Kilcoyne arrived at the morgue just before 8am, and the bodies were taken inside, their arrival was recorded in the morgue’s ledger, a large old-fashioned book of the sort used by accountants in years past.

The first name entered for 2014 is Gearóid Scully; the next is Paul Byrne. Both are listed as BID – brought in dead, as opposed to being transferred from elsewhere within the hospital.

But the dead man was not Paul Byrne.

The firefighters take stock

Back at the scene of the crash the firefighters’ job was done. A local photographer, Keith Heneghan, had arrived – “I always go to road crashes with a sense of dread as to what I may see” – and began taking images of the scene.

Soon gardaí would start a forensic scene-of-crime investigation of the crash site. The firefighters, having seen the bodies removed, tried not to disturb anything that might help explain how the crash had occurred.

The firefighters and their tenders were back at their station in Ballina just as Kilcoyne and the bodies arrived at the morgue in Castlebar. After getting out of their gear some of the firefighters had breakfast in the Manor Hotel, beside the Moy.

The breakfast was a moment deliberately contrived, a time for them to reflect on what they had just seen. “We try to look out for each other,” says one. “You don’t always know what’s going through someone’s mind, but if you stay close you might notice something or they might open up to you.”

Many firefighters knew Gearóid Scully. “It doesn’t make it any easier,” said one. “I’ve heard people around town talking; ‘Scully left my daughter home a few hours before’ – you know, people talking, feeling the loss.”

They were grateful that no family members came to the crash site when the scene there was at its worst.

Asked how they cope with what they see in road crashes, frequently far worse than the one they had just come from, a firefighter said: “You just compartmentalise it.”

By 9.30am most of the men were back home, doing their best to resume normal lives.

Breaking the news

At the crash site, however, gardaí faced the task of breaking bad news to next of kin. They suspected that the driver of the Mercedes might have been at the wedding they knew had taken place at the Mount Falcon Hotel, but they still had no firm indication of his identity.

They were sure of the identity of Gearóid Scully, however. Three guards – Chris Barrett, Pat Coleman and Pat Garvey – were charged with finding his family and telling them what had happened.

They managed to contact Alan Scully, Gearóid’s son, and asked him to come to Ballina station. He arrived before 6am, and learned that his father had been killed in a car crash.

Alan Scully was angry and bewildered and wanted answers – what had happened, how had it happened, who was to blame? – answers to questions that were only starting to be posed.

At about 6am Lorraine Devlin’s mobile phone, on the floor beside her bed, went off. When she answered it was her friend Mary, asking Lorraine to let her into the house.

Thinking Mary might have had a row with her boyfriend, Lorraine Devlin went down and opened the door. Mary was standing there with Seán Redmond, Scully’s taxi partner.

“Seán said there was an accident,” says Lorraine. “He didn’t know anything. He bought me to Castlebar [hospital]; we didn’t know. We didn’t know anything. I just thought he was in Castlebar [hospital], like. But . . .

“We asked at the counter, you know, in Accident and Emergency, was he brought in in an accident? And they said, ‘No, no, he’s not brought in here.’ So Seán went out and rang the guards, and then he called me outside.”

And that’s when Lo Lo learned of Skull’s death: standing in the hospital car park on New Year’s morning.

The mystery is solved

Coleman, Barrett and Garvey, the three gardaí, had meanwhile turned their attention to the dead driver of the Mercedes. They went to the Mount Falcon at 7am and met Alan Moloney, the owner-manager.

The gardaí explained what had happened. They still thought the driver might be Paul Byrne, Fiona McHugh’s partner. Moloney, a friend since childhood of Fiona and Karen McHugh, was shocked. He asked the gardaí what the dead driver looked like.

“Did he have a goatee beard?” he asked them. “No,” they said. “Then it’s not Paul Byrne,” Moloney said.

The group went through who else had been in Byrne’s party. The four began poring over the hotel’s CCTV footage, eventually noticing the figure who had been in the car park at 4.37am. It looked a bit like Terry Beagan, Moloney told the guards, but he wasn’t sure.

Eventually, the guards gave him a sufficiently detailed description of the body in the morgue for him to be convinced: the dead driver was indeed Terence Beagan, he told them.

The three gardaí asked to be taken to the lakeside cottage in which the dead man had been staying. Moloney led them the short distance down the tarmac drive to the cottage.

When they got to the front door of number 9 the four stopped for a moment to gather their thoughts. It was 9.15am, and they were about to deliver the worst news imaginable to Karen McHugh.

Her boyfriend, Terence Beagan, was dead.

* Anatomy of a Car Crash: Part 2 - The victims is published on Monday December 8th in The Irish Times and on irishtimes.com