A candle sparked an intense house fire which claimed the life of a young mother and her five-year-old nephew in Cork last year.
Garda crime scene investigators told Cork City Coroner’s Court that, despite arson being suspected in the early stages of the investigation, they are satisfied the blaze at 5 Nutley Grove in Mahon on Apr 24, 2011, started accidentally in the sitting room.
Helena O’Dwyer, 25, with an address at St Michael’s Ave, Mahon, and Ryan O’Dwyer Hayes, aged 5, who lived at Sun Valley Drive, Fairhill, died when fire swept through Helena’s parents’ home in the early hours of that Easter Sunday.
The joint inquest yesterday into the deaths was told they were among eight people staying in the two-storey, four-bedroom, end-of-terrace house that night. The others were the dead woman’s parents, Joe and Helena, their daughter Dawn and her two children, William, aged 4, and Katelyn, aged 2, along with the late Helena’s daughter, Courtney, aged 5.
Mrs O’Dwyer, who was the last to go to bed around 2.45am, told the inquest she blew out the only candle in the room, on the mantle-piece, at about 1am.
“I know I blew it out. I was very careful there,” she said.
She also unplugged the TV and a lamp before heading upstairs. But a few steps up the stairs, she said she heard a bang.
“I heard a bang, like the window breaking and I smelled smoke. I heard crackling and I went back down stairs and the whole sitting room was on fire. There was smoke everywhere,” she said. “I just started screaming to get the kids out of the house.”
Mr O’Dwyer got out of the bed he was sharing with Ryan, and saw his daughter Dawn, William and Katelyn, on the landing.
He ordered them out before his daughter, Helena and Courtney, appeared.
Mr O’Dwyer said he helped Courtney downstairs and saw Helena go towards Ryan’s room.
“I was aware that Helena and Ryan were upstairs. I got three-quarters of the way upstairs and the smoke got the better of me. I couldn’t breathe or see very well and I fell back down stairs and hopped my head off the wall,” he said.
He was helped from the house by a neighbour and went to a nearby house and neighbours tried to save Helena and Ryan.
Firefighters later found her body in a rear bedroom with a towel over her face. Ryan was found lying on the smouldering floor of a front bedroom.
Neither showed signs of life and both were pronounced dead later at Cork University Hospital.
Retired crime scene investigator Sergeant David O’Regan told city coroner Dr Myra Cullinane that, following a detailed forensic examination, he is satisfied that a six-inch wide three-wick candle, the remains of which he found on the sitting room floor near curtains, was the source of the blaze.
“The candle had a 360 degree funnel of oxygen feeding it. The material in the net curtains took fire and it caused a very fast and furious fire,” he said.
There was no evidence of an accelerant and he ruled out malicious intent.
Detective Garda Malachy White said several issues arose and certain lines of enquiry were followed during the comprehensive Garda investigation into the blaze.
Gardaí took 225 statements, examined phone records, and trawled through CCTV footage from Mahon and Cork City. A file was forwarded to the DPP who said there was no evidence to warrant a prosecution.
Dr Cullinane said part of her role is to allay rumour and suspicion and Det Gda White said: “There were lots of rumours in the area afterwards and lots of things were said by people to people. The Garda probe dealt with facts. And the conclusion of that investigation is there is no evidence of malicious intent.”
State pathologist Prof Marie Cassidy said Helena died due to inhalation of fire gases in association with the inhalation of gastric contents and acute alcohol intoxication, and Ryan died due to the inhalation of smoke and fire gases.
Ryan’s mother Josephine wept as the jury returned verdicts of accidental death for both victims.
Tensions ran high between family members who clashed verbally over evidence about the placement of the candle.
Neighbours made rescue bid
* Brave neighbours made heroic efforts in a bid to save Helena and Ryan from the blazing house where temperatures could have soared to 500C.
The heat was so intense, plaster peeled from the walls and the shower unit upstairs melted.
As Joe O’Dwyer sat on the wall of a nearby house, his neighbour Joe Moynihan braved the flames and got to the bottom of the stairs before he was beaten back by dense smoke.
He then climbed on to the utility room roof at the back of the house, and injured one of his hands smashing a window.
Two other neighbours, Headley Ward and Jonathan O’Mahony, had climbed a ladder and were using a garden hose to fight the flames coming out of a rear bedroom.
Garda James Smiddy and Detective Garda Niall Hayes said the front of the house, the sitting room and hall were completely engulfed by fire by 3.15am.
The flames were shooting out the front window and were reaching the gutters on the roof, Garda Smiddy said.
“The smoke was very dense, the visibility was very low, and the heat was unbelievable. There was very little you could do.”
Alpha Team firefighters, Paul White and Michael Ryan, were the first firefighters in to the house.
Mr Ryan said they could see a large plume of black smoke as they sped towards Mahon, and knew it was a serious domestic fire. He said the fire was so bad, senior fire officers were reluctant at first to let them in.
They entered the house wearing breathing apparatus and found Helena lying on her back with a towel over her face in a back bedroom, and carried her out. She was dead.
They went back in and found Ryan lying on the ground of a front bedroom where he had been sharing a bed with his grandfather.
The flames from the sitting room had burned through the ceiling into his room and were beginning to melt the carpet.
Mr Ryan said he knew the child was dead but told Ryan’s parents the boy had a peaceful look on his face and hadn’t suffered pain.
“It was horrendous to go into. Everybody did everything they could.”
— Eoin English
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