The valiant efforts of mother and father, Kathleen and Anthony McDonagh, to try and get back into the house to rescue their children were outlined at Drogheda Coroner’s Court.
Their sons, eight-year-old James, 16-year-old Tony Jnr, and 21-year-old Martin, all perished in the blaze at their home in the Moneymore estate in the early hours of March 16 last.
Another brother Eddie, aged 13, was badly injured.
The inquest heard that the exact cause of the fire cannot be identified.
State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy concluded their deaths were due to inhalation of smoke and fire gases in the blaze, which virtually gutted their terraced home.
Two of their sisters should have been in the house but had spent the night at another sister’s house. However, it took some time to ascertain who exactly had been there at the time of the fire, Coroner Ronan Maguire was told.
The inquest heard the deposition of a clearly upset Kathleen McDonagh, who said that the previous night the boys had gone to bed and she and husband were in the living room until around 2am as Anthony was listening to music.
When a few hours later he woke her to say there was a fire, her first thoughts were for her youngest son, James, who had been sleeping in their bed in their downstairs bedroom.
She said he would often go upstairs to his big brothers’ bedroom during the night, and when Kathleen woke she realised he was no longer in her bed.
Anthony gave her a set of keys and she tried to open the front door with them but couldn’t. She said: “I was panicking and there was so much smoke coming from the sitting room.”
She said the sitting room door – where it emerged the fire had started – was open as it always was.
She tried to go upstairs, “but the heat was too much. I called for the children but I never heard their voices”.
The heat and smoke forced her to go out the back door but she then ran back into the house.
She said: “I don’t know where I went [then] but I got out the front door. I don’t know how it was opened.”
She tried to get back into the house but was held back by her family and the gardaí.
Her son Eddie had jumped out of a top floor window to escape. He described how Tony had opened their bedroom window for air because of the intensity of the smoke. He has no memory of jumping from the top window but said, “the legs of my trousers were on fire and I kept trying to get up and into the house but the neighbours wouldn’t let me”.
Neighbours threw water on his legs and the skin on his arms was so badly burnt he later needed skin grafts.
The efforts of neighbours, including Patrick Faulkner and John Connor, who tried to get a ladder up to the top window to rescue Martin, who had special needs, were outlined.
“We got the ladder to within three foot of the window... the heat was too intense to go up,” Mr Faulkner said.
Martin’s body was later found partly under his bed.
Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus had to break down the door from the kitchen into the hall and recovered the three brothers from the upstairs. At the top of the stairs they found Tony Jnr, a short distance away on the landing was James, and then Martin was under his bed.
The coroner heard about the state of shock Anthony McDonagh was in and how he was unable to answer questions about how many people had been in the house.
He said: “I tried to get up the stairs and I was beat back... I tried my best but I was beaten back.”
Both parents were black from the smoke and their hair was singed, the inquest heard. Both required intensive care in hospital afterwards.
The chief fire officer, Sheila Broderick, who was at the scene said: “It was clear to me the fire had originated in the downstairs front living room.”
A Garda technical team examined the house and concluded, “the cause of the fire was accidental. The exact cause is impossible to ascertain due to the levels of destruction in the living room”.
It had spread rapidly “because of the open (sitting room) door and windows which would have fuelled the fire,” detective sergeant Jarleth Lennon said.
The heat had melted the PVC door and frame and charred the timber joists between the floors of the house.
The coroner recorded verdicts of accidental death and said: “I am struck by the extent to which the parents tried to get back into the house to try to save their children.
“It was an appalling tragedy and my words cannot do justice to the loss they have suffered.”