Gardaí are hunting for three suspected arsonists after fire gutted a derelict listed former asylum in Cork city, write Eoin English and Noel Baker.
As the scale of the damage emerged, an exclusion zone has been imposed around the remains of St Kevin’s unit on the grounds of the former Our Lady’s Mental Hospital on the Lee Road.
Two-thirds of the imposing five-storey red-bricked structure’s roof has been destroyed, supporting internal pillars have crumbled, and the top three floors have collapsed.
Even as firefighters were dampening pockets of internal fire yesterday, engineers from the city council and the building’s owners, the HSE, conducted an initial structural inspection amid fears it could be condemned. It could be several days before a final decision is made.
Fine Gael senator Colm Burke, who previously criticised the HSE for allowing the former mental hospital complex to fall into dereliction since its closure in 2002, has now written to Health Minister Simon Harris calling for a plan for the entire site.
The HSE defended the security arrangements saying it has a contract in place with an external security company who provide twice daily security patrols.
“In addition, the HSE place static guards on the site on high-risk nights, such as Bonfire Night,” a statement said.
“To prevent unwanted access into the buildings on the campus, the HSE arranged the installation of 235 fixed panel shutters, to accessible windows and doors on lower floors of the campus buildings. These were installed over the past number of years. These fixed panel shutters are the subject of ongoing, continuous maintenance.”
The HSE said a CCTV system on the perimeter of the site is monitored on a 24/7 basis and that its maintenance department carries out weekly inspections of all buildings on the site and effects any repairs.
The cost of security was not disclosed, although previously released information shows the bill from 2002 to 2007 was €1.6m.
The HSE also confirmed the site has been deemed surplus to requirements and that it had recently offered the use of the building to government departments, as well as considering its sale.
“Pending confirmation from other government departments, the HSE have recently engaged with an estate agent to discuss the potential of bringing the campus to the open market,” it said in a statement.
In the meantime, the HSE said a 24-hour security presence has been placed on the site, and fences will be installed.
It could be today before the building is deemed safe to allow garda forensic experts inside to conduct a detailed examination.
Firefighters saw three youths running from the building as they arrived just after 8.25pm. There were unconfirmed reports that photographs of people, taken inside the building moments before the alarm was raised, were posted on social media platforms.
A garda spokesman appealed to anyone who saw anyone acting suspiciously in or around the building, or the hospital campus, on Tuesday evening to contact Gurranabraher Garda Station on 021 4946200.
Firefighters on their way to relieve colleagues who fought the St Kevin’s fire saved a tourist from an attacker last night, writes Eoin English.
The crew from Cork City Fire Brigade were on their way to the former Our Lady’s Hospital campus in the western outskirts of Cork City yesterday, to relieve colleagues who had spent the day dampening down the gutted building, when they spotted an assault in progress on the Western Rd, near the River Lee Hotel.
The crew stopped their vehicle immediately and several firefighters ran towards the attacker.
He was assaulting an elderly America tourist and had the man in a headlock.
The firefighters tackled the assailant and wrestled him to the ground while their colleagues alerted gardaí.
The firefighters held the suspect until gardaí arrived minutes later and they handed him over into their custody.
The tourist was said to be shaken and shocked, but otherwise unhurt.
Tomás Kavanagh, from the Lee Rd, was enjoying a quiet summer’s evening fishing on the banks of the River Lee when he spotted wisps of smoke rising from the roof of the imposing St Kevin’s building on the slopes of the city’s northern ridge, and dialled 999 at 8.17pm, writes Eoin English.
Behind him, just across the Carrigrohane Rd, Patrick Long, from Tipperary, who was on business nearby, also spotted the smoke, and crossed the road to the Lee Fields and river bank.
He also dialled 999, and met Mr Kavanagh on the water’s edge.
Their phone calls, within a minute of each other, were the first of a series of calls from members of the public which flooded fire control in Limerick, triggering a massive response by members of Cork City Fire Brigade.
The men stood on the river bank, and watched as the first fire tenders arrived on the former hospital site within 10 minutes, and began fighting the blaze.
“I saw smoke coming out in the central part of the building. I was unsure if there was a fire behind the building or not,” said Mr Kavanagh.
“It’s sad to see it go. There have been a few fires up there over the years.”
Mr Long said it was 9pm before they saw the first flames shoot from the roof area, and from windows on the upper floors.
“It just seemed to take hold very quickly. It’s a ruin. It seems to be gone,” he said.
Social media was soon swamped with photographs and videos of the fire as it ripped through the building.
The huge plume of smoke could be seen miles away. Within minutes, hundreds of onlookers were drawn to the Lee Fields. Among them was Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald, who said it was sad to see a piece of the city’s history go up in flames.
At one stage, cars were parked on both sides of the Carrigrohane Road for up to a mile in each direction and vast crowds watched in stunned silence as the flames lit up the night sky, and the blue lights of the fire tenders flickered below.
They were drawn to the area again yesterday to view the smouldering remains, and they all held the same view. Yes, the building had a dark, chequered past, but it deserved better than this.
There was a similar response after deliberate fires gutted the former Good Shepherd building and Vernon Mount.
And now, the people of Cork are left wondering why, despite a security presence which cost millions and repeated warnings that this building was at risk, the almost inevitable has happened — again.