Lives at risk due to fire safety failures and building boom’s self-regulation regime

The scene of a fire at the Verdemont Apartment Complex on Snugsborough Rd, beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, Dublin, in May 2017. The fire is thought to have started from a barbeque. Picture Colin Keegan.

A fire broke out in an apartment complex and two people lost their lives. The building may not have been constructed properly but this wasn’t explored. Special Correspondent Michael Clifford sheds some light on the subject.

Somebody will have to die before fire trap homes are addressed.

That sentiment has been aired many times in the fire safety and construction spheres in recent years as a succession of developments built during the boom years turn out to be dangerous.

Today, the Irish Examiner reports on the latest apartment complex to be exposed as deficient in fire safety, Verdemont in west Dublin.

Owners have been told that remedial work will cost up to €14m. Fire wardens patrol the development 24/7 in case of fire. The builder, McInerney Construction, went out of business in 2011.

The problems in Verdemont came to light following a fire in May 2017 which made 100 residents made temporarily homeless. However, it is also the case that, in one of the apartments in Verdemont, there has already been two deaths as a result of a fire.

That fire occurred in 2002, the year after the development was completed. Following the fire, there was little more than what appeared to be a cursory examination — it lasted only 16 minutes — of whether or not there were any fire safety deficiencies present, according to documents seen by the Irish Examiner.

A senior garda was of the opinion that there should be a prosecution taken against the builder, but the DPP overruled him.

A coroner requested that the development be examined by the local authority to ensure that it was safe. Yet nothing was done.

Louise Wall, left, and Mick Farrell both lost their lives in a blaze at the complex in 2002.
Louise Wall, left, and Mick Farrell both lost their lives in a blaze at the complex in 2002.

Fifteen years later, it was to turn out that there were serious fire safety deficiencies in the building. One individual who investigated what had occurred was outraged.

Tony Rochford attempted in 2017 to bring his concerns to the attention of the gardaí but to no avail. Later, he disrupted traffic on the M50 in a dangerous stunt for which he was prosecuted. He is currently serving a prison sentence.

Whether or not two people lost their lives because the home they were renting was built in a dangerous manner can’t be stated definitively.

However, serious questions arise as to why in the immediate aftermath of their deaths, and particularly after a coroner expressed concerns, there was not a more thorough examination of the development in which they died.

The fire started in the kitchen of Apartment 73 in Verdemont, a development on Snugborough Rd, near the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre and the M50.

It was March 18, 2002. Mick Farrell and Louise Wall, who lived there with their three-year-old son, had been out earlier. Their son was staying with Louise’s brother, Shane.

The bodies were discovered by Shane around 7.30pm. Mick was found in one of the two bedrooms. Louise was found in the bath.

The fire burned itself out through lack of oxygen, but that was too late for the couple. Mick was 23, Louise 21. They had been living there for a month.

Verdemont had been completed in February 2001 by McInerney Construction, one of the state’s leading homebuilders at the time.

In 2001, the company had built around 700 homes in the greater Dublin area.

Two people were dead. The question is whether their deaths were in any way attributable to how the apartment was built.

A fire certificate had been issued for the development prior to construction. Had Verdemont been built in accordance with that certificate?

Two days after the fire, Apartment 73 was visited by members of the building control section of Fingal County Council.

The garda on duty at the scene recorded this visit:

At 11.29am Detective Garda Peter O’Connor entered the scene along with [names removed] two inspectors of Fingal County Council and at 11.45am the above persons left the scene.

The inspection lasted 16 minutes. This is the only recorded inspection in Verdemont in the aftermath of the fire.

In a report on the inspection, the inspectors stated that the two fire alarms had been removed from their fittings in the ceiling.

A spokesman for Fingal County Council told the Irish Examiner last week that, during the 2002 inspection in question “it was also noted that the fire alarms hadn’t been fitted properly”.

That is not what was noted. The inspection report stated: “There was evidence that the proper fire alarm system had been installed.

It was obvious that both alarms had been removed from their fittings in the ceiling.”

The inspection report could be read as inferring that the couple had removed the fire alarms that were properly installed. In fact, it would later emerge that they had not been properly installed, and the issue was only resolved in December 2003.

The inspection report went on: “The only non-compliance we found was that the air vent in the kitchen was not cut open on the inside.

“The opening to the external air was covered by plasterboard. The fact that ventilation in the kitchen was not adequate meant that the fire did not spread.

On behalf of Fingal County Council, there are not sufficient serious breaches in the Building Regulations to initiate prosecution against any party at this stage.

The inspectors’ opinion was based on a 16 minute examination in the wake of two fatalities. The issue over the alleged removal of the fire alarms was not explored.

Equally, was the problem with the vent — actually covering it with plasterboard — unique to the stricken apartment? There was also an issue with two external vents which did not go right through into the apartment.

Yet the verdict from the building control department inspection was that any breach of the Building Control Act, designed to ensure health and safety, was not sufficient to pursue a prosecution.

The gardaí thought differently. Superintendent Mick Roche, who led the garda investigation, presented his file to the DPP on September 12 2002.

In it, he noted the report on the inspection.

“Despite [named inspector’s] reservations I would personally favour a prosecution against the builder — McInerney Construction,” Supt Roche wrote.

The DPP declined to prosecute. Again, a question arises as to whether the DPP might have reached a different decision if he had access to the kind of information that would eventually be uncovered in a fire of lesser consequence some fifteen years later.

It is also unclear as to what the DPP was presented with about the fire alarms.

The inquests into the deaths of Mick Farrell and Louise Wall took place on November 11 2002, eight months after the fire. Both deceased were ruled to have died due to smoke inhalation.

The following February, the coroner, Kieran Geraghty, wrote to the Architecture Department in Fingal County Council about recommendations expressed by the jury at the inquest.

“Evidence was given during the inquest that two vents which were open on the outside side wall did not go all the way through to the inside wall,” he said. “They were covered by a grill on the outside, which made it look as if they were functioning but in fact they weren’t.

“A third vent which opened through at the back of the cooker where the extractor fan was covered over with plasterboard.

In total three of the external vents were non-functioning. The jury was concerned that the supervision of the building generally was inadequate and that in particular they were concerned that other apartments or houses at this site might not have been completed properly. I would be very grateful if you would look into this matter.

The response from the building control department in Fingal came from one of the inspectors.

“Apart from my inspection of March 20, 2002, there was no need to inspect this project,” he wrote.

He said there had been an inspection during construction by the insurance company, Homebond.

“It was a matter of avoiding duplication of inspections and diverting our limited resources to projects that had less supervision on site.”

The final point was well made. During the 2000s, there was a complete paucity of resources in local authorities to carry out inspections. At one point there were more dog inspectors than building inspectors in the State.

However, the jury was not concerned as to whether the development had been inspected during construction. They just wanted to know whether it was now safe for other residents and owners.

There is no record of this matter being referred by Fingal to Dublin Fire Brigade. In response to questions about the matter, a spokesperson for Fingal County Council referred to correspondence between the Fire Brigade and the developer in December 2003 about fitting the fire alarms, nearly two years after the fire.

This had no connection to the concerns expressed by the inquest jury a year earlier.

Based on a few hours’ evidence, a jury of lay people in 2002 formed an opinion that perhaps Verdemont was deficient in terms of fire safety. Nothing of consequence, not even a more detailed inspection, was carried out in response.

Yet, 15 years later, it turns out that the jury of lay people was entirely correct to be concerned. The complex wasn’t built properly and deemed to be so unsafe that it is now necessary to have fire wardens patrolling it 24/7, as reported in today’s Irish Examiner.

In 2002, the building boom was kicking into high gear. The self-regulation regime was in full flow. As far as the State was concerned, it was hands-off and let them at it. On the ground, those charged with building control were seeing resources gradually siphoned away.

That’s the background against which the Verdemont fire and its aftermath occurred. For the relatives of those who died, the questions have never gone away.

“Every year goes by and we still have not had any questions answered about this,” says Louise’s mother, Margaret.

I can’t understand how there was not a prosecution of some sort.

A further question also arises. If there had been a more thorough inspection of the complex in the aftermath of the fire — or particularly following the coroner’s request — what effect could it have had?

If Verdemont had been exposed as a fire trap, would the whole self regulation system have been dismantled, as it eventually was — albeit only partially — in 2014 following the Priory Hall debacle?

If Verdemont had been inspected fully is it possible that the worst excesses of the building boom might have been avoided?

Two fatalities occurred in a firetrap home. The circumstances in which they died weren’t fully explored.

If those deaths occurred today, in light of what we now know about building practices during the boom, there would be an urgent response from the government.

Their deaths occurred before all the bad stuff came to light and this should be considered by those who may be, unwittingly or otherwise, waiting for a fatality before fixing this looming scandal.

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