Woman who set fire to apartment was dragged to safety by gardaí

A woman who set fire to an apartment, killing two men, had to be dragged by gardaí to safety still clutching a bottle of cider.

Woman who set fire to apartment was dragged to safety by gardaí

Rachel Crawshaw was abusive to the garda trying to save her and had to be physically restrained outside after the incident in Cork in 2014.

The details emerged yesterday at a joint inquest into the deaths of John Palmer, 37, and Greg Lonergan, 36, who died in the fire in an apartment on the top floor of the Granary Court complex in Mallow on March 13, 2014.

Rachel Crawshaw at Cork Circuit Court last year where she was jailed for the unlawful killing of Greg Lonergan. Picture: Cork Courts Limited
Rachel Crawshaw at Cork Circuit Court last year where she was jailed for the unlawful killing of Greg Lonergan. Picture: Cork Courts Limited

The coroner for North Cork, Dr Michael Kennedy, heard how Ms Crawshaw was among four people who had spent the previous day, March 12, on a drinking binge in apartment 24.

Gardaí were called around 9.30pm after reports of a disturbance.

Garda Caitriona O’Sullivan. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney
Garda Caitriona O’Sullivan. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney

Garda Cathriona O’Sullivan told the inquest she noted four people inside: Rachel Crawshaw, a man who it later emerged had given a false name, Christopher Palmer, and his twin, John, who had cut injuries to his hands. The twins were renting the apartment.

She said the sitting room window was broken, that there were large piles of rubbish, and bottles of cider on the floor.

Paramedics treated John Palmer at the scene, but he refused to go to hospital for stitches and was advised to seek medical attention the following morning.

John Palmer.
John Palmer.

Gardaí received another call just after midnight when neighbours spotted smoke coming from the top floor of the apartment block.

Garda O’Sullivan and Garda Liam Philips responded.

The inquest heard that following a fire in the apartment block the previous month, on February 26, its fire alarm system had been disabled pending a block cleaning operation scheduled for March 19.

Garda Philips kicked in a rear door and they had to use their torches to find their way upstairs to the top floor where, despite intense smoke and fumes, they found Christopher Palmer lying unconscious in a hallway.

They dragged him to a nearby window before Garda O’Sullivan pulled Ms Crawshaw from the nearby apartment 25 and found her clutching a two-litre bottle of cider.

Garda O’Sullivan told the inquest Ms Crawshaw was drunk and shouted: “Get your fucking hands off me. I’m not leaving without my bottle of cider.” The garda had to forcibly escort her outside, while Garda Philips remained with Mr Palmer.

Garda O’Sullivan said she had to strike Ms Crawshaw with her baton outside to prevent her from going back into the burning building.

Garda O’Sullivan went back inside and helped her colleague carry Mr Palmer to safety before the two gardaí went back inside again to evacuate other residents.

The two gardaí entered the burning building again to save the two men trapped in apartment 24 but they were beaten back by the thick smoke.

Firefighters recovered John Palmer’s body from a burned couch and Mr Lonergan’s body from the floor six feet away a short time later.

Greg Lonergan.
Greg Lonergan.

Both were pronounced dead at the scene. Their injuries were so severe that their families were advised against viewing them. They were identified through dental records and DNA analysis.

Dr Margot Bolster, the assistant State pathologist, said postmortems showed that both men were alive when the fire started.

She said both had high levels of alcohol and traces of sedatives and sleeping tablets in their systems and would have been unconscious at the time.

The cause of death in both cases was shock due to severe burns, associated with smoke inhalation, complicated by alcohol toxicity in association with the ingestion of central nervous system depressant drugs.

In a statement to gardaí some days later, Christopher Palmer said Ms Crawshaw had “lost the rag” during the evening, which he said was “usual for her after drink”.

He said she smashed his computer, the TV, and a window, and threatened him that she would get her boyfriend “after him” before she threatened to burn the apartment down.

“That was her trademark. There was no fire in my apartment until Rachel Crawshaw set fire to whatever she was holding,” he said.

Garda crime scene investigator Kevin Sheehan said he identified three seats of fire in the apartment — two of which were isolated — and that there was no sign of an electrical fire.

A mattress in one bedroom and a pile of clothes on the floor of the second bedroom had been set alight but these fires did not take hold.

However, he said the couch in the living room was the seat of the major fire which destroyed the living room and kitchen area. There was no evidence that accelerant had been used.

Inspector Michael Corbett, who was a detective sergeant in Mallow at the time, said Ms Crawshaw was identified as a suspect early in the Garda investigation.

He said he arrested her at Cork University Hospital on March 16, 2014 and took her to Mallow Garda Station. She was later released without charge, and a file was submitted to the DPP.

It was subsequently recommended that Ms Crawshaw be charged, but she had left the jurisdiction.

Gardaí obtained a European Arrest Warrant, which Ms Crawshaw challenged, but she was finally extradited from the UK to Ireland on February 22, 2016.

She pleaded guilty at Cork Circuit Criminal Court on April 19, 2016, to two counts of manslaughter, and to one count of arson, and she was sentenced last October to 15 years in jail, with five years suspended. The court heard she had a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

The jury at yesterday’s inquest returned verdicts of manslaughter in accordance with the outcome of the criminal case.

They also recommended fire extinguishers should be replaced immediately after use and that fire alarm systems should be repaired immediately.

Gardaí praised

Two gardaí who risked their lives to save people from a burning apartment in Mallow, Co Cork, have been commended for their bravery.

Garda Liam Philips stayed inside the apartment block with a casualty while Garda Cathriona O’Sullivan escorted another to safety, before they both carried the unconscious man out.

They entered the building again to evacuate residents, and also made a further effort to save two trapped men before being beaten back by thick smoke. Coroner for North Cork, Dr Michael Kennedy, said if it wasn’t for their courage, there would have been more fatalities.

He noted how Christopher Palmer stopped breathing for two minutes during his transfer to hospital before being revived, and said the officers’ swift actions saved his life.

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