Terrible cost of fire defects: Family still searching for answers over tragedy

Terrible cost of fire defects: Family still searching for answers over tragedy
Margaret Wall and her husband Richie at their home in Courtown, Co Wexford. ‘We still have not had any questions answered about this,’ said Margaret. ‘I can’t understand how there is not a prosecution of some sort.’ Pictures: Mary Browne

‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what happened to Louise and what we could have done to prevent Shane’s death’

SHANE Wall found the bodies in the bedroom and the bathroom.

The apartment was in darkness when Shane arrived with his three-year-old nephew, Dylan, whom he was dropping home. Nobody answered when Shane knocked, but the door was unlocked so he walked in.

He found Mick Farrell first, lying on the floor in the bedroom. The sight of a recently deceased man, somebody he knew, must have shocked 21-year-old Shane to his core. But he hadn’t time to dwell. He could hear Dylan outside, about to come in.

Shane moved quickly to the door and told his nephew there was a spider in there, and they had better go back down to the living room. He managed to keep Dylan distracted as he went to look for his sister Louise, Dylan’s mother.

He found her body in the bathroom. Over the following minutes, Shane managed to do what had to be done.

He kept up appearances with Dylan, pretending they hadn’t walked in on an unspeakable tragedy.

He phoned the gardaí. And then he phoned his mother, Margaret.

“My daughter Gillian answered the phone,” Margaret remembers. “She passed it to my other daughter Michelle who said ‘what?’ Then she turned to me and said ‘Shane is on the phone and Louise and Mick are dead’.

“I took the phone and asked him what was going on. He said they were dead, that it looked like there had been a fire. I put the phone down and the girls were crying. I wasn’t. I must have been in shock. Our next-door neighbours said later that they heard screaming from our house.”

It was around 7pm on Monday, March 18, 2002. Margaret had just arrived back in Dublin from the mobile home she and her husband Richie Brady kept in Wexford.

A mother’s worst fear had just been realised. But there were further depths of pain to be plumbed. It would soon become apparent that there were construction deficiencies in the apartment where the couple had died. These involved fire safety and were similar to those which have been exposed in dozens of developments in recent years. But in 2002 the response to the fire and tragedy was very different to what might be the case today.

The couple’s deaths would never be properly explained. And compounding that, two years later, Shane, who had found the bodies, took his own life.

His mother firmly believes that what he saw that evening contributed in a major way to the inner turmoil that drove him to suicide.

TO an outsider, Margaret Wall appears to have a good life. She and Richie live in Riverchapel, Co Wexford. You can smell the sea from her front door. In summer the area teems with holidaymakers. When the winter presses in, and everybody has gone home, the community battens down in a warm cocoon.

Shane Wall found the bodies of his sister and her partner and later died by suicide.
Shane Wall found the bodies of his sister and her partner and later died by suicide.

Margaret has a big, close family. Her children and grandchildren are frequent visitors. Yet there remains a primal pain that time will never heal. She has had to suffer the unnatural phenomenon of burying not one but two of her children.

Margaret is from Knocknaheeny on Cork’s northside. She married locally and had five children, but she says the relationship was unhealthy and she left for Dublin with her children.

There she met Richie Brady. They would go on to marry in time and have two children of their own. Richie, to the greatest extent, was involved in the rearing of all Margaret’s children.

The family settled in Clonsilla, west Dublin. Louise was the fourth of Margaret’s five children from her first marriage. Shane was just 11 months younger than Louise. “Louise was the softest, quietest girl,” her mother remembers. “She never lost the head and was always quietly-spoken. She and Shane were very close.”

Louise had one child, Dylan, from a relationship that didn’t last. Then she met Mick O’Farrell. “They were very happy together,” Margaret says.

“Mick was very good to her and then they decided to move in together.”

The couple took out a lease on 73 Verdemont, on the Snugborough Rd near the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The complex had been completed earlier that year by McInerney Brothers, one of the biggest house- builders in the State at the time.

Not everything was great. When Richie visited soon after they moved in, he noticed that the fire alarm was hanging from the ceiling. In time there would be an insinuation that the couple had removed the alarm, but it would ultimately be shown that the alarms had not been properly installed.

The fire that would change all their lives occurred on the bank holiday Monday of St Patrick’s weekend.

Mick and Louise had left Dylan at Margaret’s house the previous day, and Shane was looking after him.

They went out for a few drinks and returned around 6pm. Louise wasn’t feeling well and a post mortem would ultimately show that she had very little alcohol in her system.

The fire started in the kitchen, most likely from the gas cooker. Louise and Mick died within minutes from smoke inhalation. No alarm sounded.

The fire didn’t spread, most likely because it ran out of oxygen. This was because vents in the apartment were bricked up. The bricked-up vents also ensured there was no release for the smoke. If the alarm had sounded, or if the smoke could have been released through the vents, the fire might have had a different outcome.

AFTER getting the call from her son, Margaret went down to Verdemont, but the gardaí had sealed off the apartment by then.

Louise Wall, who died in a fire at her home in Verdemont, Dublin, in 2002.
Louise Wall, who died in a fire at her home in Verdemont, Dublin, in 2002.

The first Margaret knew that all was not as it seemed in the new development was the following Sunday when she picked up the Sunday World.

“It called the apartment a tomb and said that the vents had been blocked up. We were shocked. So I went up there with Shane and we went in and opened up the vents and they were bricked up. It was shocking,” she says.

The apartment was inspected by Fingal County Council officials but the subsequent report didn’t point out anything of significance.

By contrast, a Garda investigation resulted in a recommendation that the builder be prosecuted.

Superintendent Mick Roche, who led the Garda investigation, presented his file to the DPP on September 12, 2002.

In it, he noted the building inspector’s report. “Despite his [inspector’s] reservations I would personally favour a prosecution against the builder, McInerney Construction,” Supt Roche wrote.

The DPP declined to prosecute. One explanation for the decision is that greater weight was given to the inspector’s report, which had been compiled following a 16-minute inspection.

Later that year a coroner’s court also noted that there had been serious deficiencies in fire safety, and recommended that further inspections be carried out.

Apart from the bereavement, Margaret also had to contend with the care of Louise’s son, Dylan. Her own daughter Michelle agreed to raise the boy. The family were told that they would be entitled to compensation for the loss of Louise.

“Brian Lenihan came up to the house to sympathise after it,” Margaret said. “He told me to get a solicitor, that Dylan should be entitled to at least €250,000.

“I spoke to a solicitor and he told me that if I went all the way and brought them to court I could lose my house if we lost. At the start he said that if this was in France somebody would be charged with murder. But it began to drag on. In the end, there was a settlement for €50,000 for Dylan. I was just thinking about my daughter Michelle who was going to raise him.”

The settlement appears very low for the loss of a life through negligence. Margaret had sued both the builder and the local authority. If negligence was an issue, how could a life be worth just that amount?

“I feel that if we had been somebody who knew how things operated, who knew people, it would have been very different,” Margaret says.

“I was left to do all this and I’m just an ordinary person. Riche was working all the hours God gave at the time and I got the impression that on the legal side they all wanted this thing over and done with.”

Life moved on. The families of the deceased young couple carried their respective bereavements.

“Dylan’s a great young fella he has turned out fine,” Margaret says. “He’s in college now. It hasn’t been as easy for some of my own children. They have found it very hard to come to terms with it all, as I have myself.”

One person who never managed to cope thereafter was Shane, Louise’s brother, who had found the bodies.

“Louise was his pal as well as his sister,” Margaret remembers. “There was only 11 months between them. They shared the same friends.”

Shane began to suffer from depression. His mother believes his condition was exacerbated hugely by both the loss of his sibling and what he saw in the Verdemont apartment that evening.

“I got a call one time to go down to Verdemont,” Margaret says. “Shane had gone down there. He went up the steps to the apartment with flowers and somebody inside came out and told him to clear off. It was awful.

“He ended up in Blanchardstown Hospital where I worked. He had depression and none of it was easy.” Shane had further spells in hospital. In early November 2004, he left hospital without telling anyone and went down to the house of a family friend in rural Co Wexford.

A few days later, a garda showed up at Margaret and Richie’s then-home in Wellington Bridge in Wexford. “I was just back from taxing the car,” Richie remembers. “Margaret was down in Waterford with a friend. And he told me that Shane had hung himself.”

Later they learned that on that night, Shane went to the local pub and told his friend he wasn’t bringing his car with him. Margaret had gone guarantor for the car.“He told his friend that if anything happened the car his mam might get in trouble,” Margaret says. “Even with everything going on for him he wasn’t just thinking about himself.”

THE years passed and the families’ tragedy remained a personal one. Any public interest in terms of the circumstances of the fire evaporated. Margaret’s family set up a ‘Be Their Voice’ Facebook page to keep the issue current. But its reach never went far beyond friends and family.

William Anthony (Tony) Rochford was jailed for criminal damage after a dangerous stunt on the M50 in a bid to highlight what he saw as a terrible injustice over the fatal fire. Picture: Paddy Cummins
William Anthony (Tony) Rochford was jailed for criminal damage after a dangerous stunt on the M50 in a bid to highlight what he saw as a terrible injustice over the fatal fire. Picture: Paddy Cummins

Then in 2017, another fire stuck Verdemont. This time, thankfully, nobody lost their lives but around 100 apartments had to be temporarily evacuated in the aftermath.

A fire from a barbecue on a balcony spread quickly, exposing a major deficiency in fire-stopping.

Since the fire the extent of the safety deficiencies has been writ large. Fire wardens are now employed to patrol the complex 24/7. The owners have been told that the cost of the remedial work required could be as high as €14m, making it the most expensive repair job of all the deficient buildings uncovered in recent years.

All of this was 15 years too late for Margaret Wall’s family. It does, however, give rise to the big question as to why these deficiencies were not uncovered after the deaths in 2002.

One person who did make connections between the two fires was Tony Rochford, who has been an activist on various social issues. Prior to the 2017 fire he had begun investigating the 2002 tragedy after spotting what he thought were major deficiencies in the development where he worked as a tiler.

He made contact with Margaret.

“Tony came to my house, and he showed us what he had uncovered. He said there will be another fire, and it turned out he was right,” she says.

Following the 2017 fire he attempted to have the investigation into the couple’s deaths reopened. A Garda inspector arrived at Margaret’s door and said there might be an investigation, but nothing came of it.

Later, Margaret and Richie accompanied Rochford as he attempted to get someone in An Garda Síochána to take on board the evidence he had accumulated. “We went to the Phoenix Park and we were sent from there to Cabra and from there to Blanchardstown. They wouldn’t even take a statement from us,” Margaret says.

Richie was getting fed up of going from pillar to post. He said goodbye to Tony and went home. Margaret stayed with him, hoping they might get somewhere.

“In the end I said to Tony ‘what are we going to do?’ and he said he’d sort something out. I went home and when I got there Richie said to me ‘what did you do to Tony? He’s after holding up the M50. It was on Facebook’.”

Rochford had mounted a gantry in the M50 in a dangerous stunt that resulted in the temporary closure of the motorway. He wanted to highlight what he saw as a terrible injustice over the fatal fire in Verdemont.

On June 1, 2018, Rochford was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment over the incident. Judge Martin Nolan said a lot of people had good things to say about him but he had acted with malice and forethought. Margaret had presented the court with a character reference. Rochford is due for release later this year.

“We knew nothing of what he was going to do and we certainly didn’t want him breaking the law for us,” Margaret says. “What he did was wrong but he was completely agitated. As far as he was concerned two people had died unnecessarily and nothing was been done about it.” Ultimately, there has been no closure for Margaret and her family. “Every year goes by and we still have not had any questions answered about this,” she says. “I can’t understand how there is not a prosecution of some sort.

“I might come across as somebody who’s happy because I put on good front but there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about what happened to Louise and what we could have done to prevent poor Shane’s death.”

Paying the price for shoddy building

Priory Hall in Dublin had to be evacuated in 2011.
Priory Hall in Dublin had to be evacuated in 2011.

In 2011 the country was coming to terms with the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years and subsequent economic collapse. That year also saw the first manifestation of another hidden cost from the Tiger years — shoddy and dangerous work done during the frantic building boom.

Priory Hall hit the headlines in October 2011 when Judge Peter Kelly ordered the evacuation of its 185 homes because they were a fire hazard. The development in north county Dublin had been constructed by Thomas McFeeley, a former IRA hunger striker.

The residents were evacuated. The human cost mounted up with families made homeless, some living out of suitcases. Issues arose over mortgages. One of those involved took his own life. Those close to him claimed his death was directly attributable to the fallout from Priory Hall.

Dublin City Council took over the development. The total cost of refurbishing the building was around €27m. It is still unclear how much of that was recouped.

Priory Hall was initially put down to Mr McFeely’s character. He was cast as a maverick who had given the industry a bad, undeserved name.

By 2015 that narrative had crumbled. The Irish Examiner revealed that Longboat Quay on Dublin’s Docklands had a number of fire safety deficiencies which had prompted a fire officer to demand immediate repair work to stave off the prospect of evacuation.

Also in 2015, a fire levelled a terrace of six houses in half an hour in Milfield Manor in Newbridge, Co Kildare. According to design standards, it should have taken at least three hours for the fire to spread. Major deficiencies were highlighted in that development.

Other deficient developments began to emerge over the following years, many of them first exposed on the pages of the Irish Examiner. Now the number stands in excess of 24 developments throughout the country where serious fire safety deficiencies have been identified.

Industry sources say this figure dwarfs the real number of apartment blocks built between 2000 and 2008 with serious safety deficiencies. In most instances owners want to keep quiet about the discovery of deficiencies in order to protect their asset.

Local authorities and their fire departments appear to have learned the lessons from the fallout of Priory Hall. Applications from fire authorities to evacuate buildings are now issued, if at all, only in the most extreme cases. Priory Hall has shown that the cost of doing so can be crippling.

Instead, in a number of cases, the solution has been to install fire wardens 24/7 in order to greatly reduce the possibility of loss of life in the event of fire. This is maintained while remedial work is conducted. The cost is often punitive but at least people can remain in their homes.

Since 2014 a new regime of certification is in place which is certainly tighter, but has also attracted criticism for continued shortcomings in respect of independence.

The demented pace of building during those years of illusory wealth is one of the main reasons why standards were not maintained, even in some cases by developers who had a reputation for satisfactory work.

Developers were let do as they pleased. The system of self-certification ensured that wherever corners were to be cut, they were cut; wherever pressure was on to expedite, standards slipped; wherever money was tight, half measures sufficed.

One outcome from that regime is that local authorities have been slow to chase builders when deficiencies come to light, as awkward questions could arise for the authorities themselves. The biggest current problem is that owners, many of whom bought at the height of the madness, have been left with the bills.

This was touched on in a report last month by Cluid Housing and Housing Agency. Owners Management Companies: Sustainable Apartment Living for Ireland dealt with the problems of defects, including fire safety defects, in buildings constructed during the boom. “Building defects is a huge issue and it is inflicting significant reputational damage on apartments as a housing solution. The failings of self-certification in Ireland’s longest period of apartment construction have resulted in a large number of apartment buildings and owners having to fund defects.”

A report by the Oireachtas Committee on Housing — Safe As Houses? — published last year, recommended that a redress scheme be set up for those who have been affected.

“Those living in homes that have major defects, through no fault of their own, should not be left to their own devices,” Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin, the committee’s rapporteur said.

“It was the state’s regulatory regime which allowed, in some cases, the bad behaviour by developers.”

16-minute inspection

Two days after the fatal fire in March 2002 the apartment in Verdemont was inspected by a council official from building control. The official record shows the inspection lasted 16 minutes. This is the only recorded inspection in Verdemont in the aftermath of the fire.

The report on the inspection noted that the vents were blocked up and that the fire alarms were not working.

Earlier this year, a spokesman for Fingal County Council told the Irish Examiner that during the 2002 inspection “it was also noted that the fire alarms hadn’t been fitted properly”.

That is not what was recorded. The 2002 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.” He advised that “on behalf of Fingal County Council, I believe that there are not sufficient serious breaches in the Building Regulations to initiate prosecution against any party at this stage.”

The inspector’s opinion was based on a 16-minute inspection 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 recommended a prosecution against the developer, McInerney.

The DPP declined to prosecute. 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 15 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 11 November, 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. 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 the official who had conducted the inspection.

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

He pointed out that 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 were 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 from the Irish Examiner 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.

It would be a further 15 years before another fire would expose the serious fire safety deficiencies in the development. McInerney had not long ceased trading by the time of this second fire in May 2017.

The total cost of remedial work to make Verdemont safe is as yet unknown, but owners have been told it could be up to €14m.

Currently, fire wardens are patrolling the development 24/7 in order to ensure safe evacuation in the event of a fire.

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