Police did not find body of man after fire, inquest told

Police failed to locate the body of a drunk man who died in a fire which swept through a disused school in north Belfast, an inquest heard today.

It was not until 12 hours later that a couple accidentally stumbled on Stephen Gallagher, 39, lying on the ground amid the remains of the blackened building.

Officers had been told about a man the previous day by children but called off their search because of darkness and dangers accessing the property, Belfast Coroner's Court was told.

Coroner John Leckey told the Belfast inquest: "It is quite dreadful to think that the person may have been alive and left to lie where he was overnight."

Eight-year-old children found the unemployed butcher on September 1 last year at the derelict Deaf and Blind School in Jordanstown and parents reported it to police. A helicopter was used as part of the search, but officers failed to locate the body.

Mr Gallagher, from Greymount Parade, Belfast, had called the emergency services a few days earlier on his mobile phone but was unable to tell them where he was.

Mr Leckey added: "I think this is so serious that the Chief Constable (Matt Baggott) should be aware of it and it is certainly a matter I intend to refer to the Police Ombudsman (Al Hutchinson).

"It beggars belief that the police officers concerned did not have the wit to speak to the children concerned."

Constable Jonathon Mallon, who eventually found the body, said the property was derelict and there was a lot of debris when they first investigated.

"The search was called off due to the fact that it was getting a bit dangerous at night to go through the property because of all the waste and dereliction in place," he said.

Mr Leckey pointed out that Sarah Cummins and her boyfriend had no difficulty locating the body when they stumbled across it the next day.

"If children found the body surely police would want to speak to the children," the coroner added.

Constable Mallon said they were upset by what they had seen and their parents did not want them to talk to police.

Mr Leckey said: "It is important if there is a report of a dead body that it is thoroughly investigated.

"I find it very concerning because the person concerned may have been conscious rather than dead and injured in derelict premises overnight."

Constable Mallon said Mr Gallagher's face was blackened by the smoke and there were black marks across the room as well as debris from the fire. A window had been smashed and there appeared to be blood on it. No criminality was involved in the death.

Checks of his mobile phone record that Mr Gallagher called the emergency services on August 28 last year, the day he was last seen alive.

Constable Mallon listened to the call log.

"He was quite drunk and hard to make out, he was crying a lot, he did mention at some stage it had started again, by that I think the fire," the officer said.

He said 'Jordanstown Deaf and Blind' but the operator did not hear him or contact police.

Mr Gallagher's sister Caroline McLernon said: "The children were only eight but had any children of mine come home and described something like that I would have expected the police to come and speak to the children if they could not find the body.

"I cannot really understand why in the lightness of day the police did not come back again to have a look."

The coroner ruled that Mr Gallagher was poisoned from smoke inhalation while severely intoxicated.

Police said it was inappropriate to comment further because of the possible Ombusdsman investigation.


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