Two companies have been fined by a court a total of €225,000 after pleading guilty to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act that led to the drownings of two stonemasons in Limerick City, seven years ago.
Bryan Whelan, 29, of O’Briensbridge, Co Clare, and TJ O’Herlihy, 36, Castleisland, Co Kerry, both plunged to their deaths in the River Shannon as they carried out repair works on the side of Thomond Bridge, on August 29, 2015.
A safety mechanism on a crane that was holding the two men and a third co-worker, in a steel cage, over the side of the bridge, had failed to operate, Limerick Circuit Court heard.
Judge Tom O’Donnell imposed a fine of €200,000 on Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd, Dock Road, Limerick, and a €25,000 fine on Palfinger Ireland Ltd, Church Hill, Cloncollog, Tullamore, Co Offaly.
The maximum fine open to the court to impose on Palfinger was an unlimited sum, and Nationwide had faced a maximum fine of €3m.
At a previous sentencing hearing, last July, some of the dead men's loved ones had to leave the court after becoming distressed when harrowing video footage of the tragic incident was played.
A safety mechanism aimed at preventing weight overloading on the crane had failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on a wire rope that was holding the men in a steel cage platform hanging over the side of the bridge, explained senior prosecuting counsel Shane Costelloe SC.
The wire “snapped” sending the platform and the men, who were harnessed into it and wearing lifejackets, into the river.
It happened around 3.40pm and was witnessed by dozens of members of the public.
Mr Whelan and Mr O’Herlihy both drowned as they could not escape from the steel cage. They were harnessed into the cage and wearing life-jackets, as was required under health and safety regulations.
Their co-worker, Paul Murphy, from Askeaton, Co Limerick, managed to free his harness and was rescued by emergency first responders after he was swept out along the Shanon estuary.
Following investigations the Health and Safety Authortiy (HSA) brought a prosecution against Nationwide and Palfinger.
Palfinger supplied the winch crane to Nationwide on March 12, 2003, but unbeknown to Palfinger, the crane’s user manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequently carrying out testing of the crane’s overload protection system. It later emerged this mechanism failed on the day of the “catastrophic tragedy”.
The crane had been mounted onto a flat-bed lorry which was positioned on the bridge with an extendable telescopic winch that held the three workers in a steel cage via a wire rope or cable.
Palfinger pleaded guilty to failing to take steps necessary to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane and its operations, to ensure that when it was in use it would be safe.
Nationwide pleaded guilty that, being an employer, it failed to ensure that contracted workers were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare, and that it failed to ensure the winch crane was in a safe condition, in particular, the overload protection system, and “as a consequence TJ O’Herlihy and Bryan Whelan died”, the court heard.
In her victim impact statement, Mr O’Herilhy’s partner Therese “Tess” Wigsten, mother to their two young children Conor (10) and Katie (7), wrote: “Conor was three years old and Katie was six months when their dad died, we were not the ‘typical or normal’ family because our son has a progressive mitochondrial disease and has special needs, he needs full-time help with everything. My children have lost one of the most important persons in their life, their dad; Katie didn't even get to know him, Katie will never experience how it is to be ‘daddy’s girl’."
Katie Wigsten wrote how “life would have been more beautiful and nicer if dad was alive, we would have been a family of four, he could help me with homework and pick me up from school, and if I could turn back time I would tell dad never to take the job so he could be with us”.
Conor Wigsten, wrote: “I miss my dad, I wish he was here to help me, to carry me and play with me, I wish he could help me in school.”
Bryan Whelan’s bother, John Paul Whelan, said they were “haunted” by the tragedy and that seeing the bridge now serves as a constant, painful reminder of the devastating and disastrous events of that day”.
The families of the two deceased men, and Paul Murphy, have each lodged civil proceedings against Palfinger and Nationwide.
Speaking through their solicitor Sean Fitzgerald, HOMS Assist, outside the court on Friday after the sentences were handed down, John and Margaret Whelan, bereaved parents of the late Bryan Whelan, said while the fines imposed on Nationwide and Palfinger were “of little consolation for the loss of our son” the sentences did “offer some closure after seven long years”.