The first phonecall the Reidy family received on January 9, 2011, was to tell them something had gone wrong and that they needed to make their way to Kinsale, Co Cork, as quickly as possible.
The second, about 20 minutes later, was to tell them that one daughter had died and a second daughter was unlikely to pull through.
“We were told Trish was at death’s door,” Siobhán Barrett said. “When we left for Cork, it was on the basis that we were going to lose both of them.”
In the event, Patricia Russell did pull through, although her condition was so serious that she was unable to attend the funeral of her sister, Miriam Reidy, 35, eight days after she died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
What should have been a weekend of celebration as the sisters gathered in Kinsale for the hen party of their cousin, Marie Reidy, became instead the scene of a terrible tragedy.
What happened that night to Miriam, from Ballyhahill, Co Limerick, has been well documented because of a subsequent court case. She and her sister had returned from the hen party to their hotel room in the Trident at around 1am. Neither of them had drunk much but both felt ill.
Patricia began to wonder if their drinks had been spiked or if they were suffering from food poisoning. She felt weak and dizzy and eventually asked the hotel to call a doctor, who arrived at 5am. By then, Miriam had fallen and vomited.
Patricia remembers feeling exceptionally cold. Her last memory before waking in intensive care at Cork University Hospital was of putting on her fleece.
The needlessness of her sister’s death is what gets to Siobhán — which is why she is now involved in a campaign to make it compulsory for all buildings — public, private, and commercial — to have carbon monoxide alarms. They cost less than €20 and take just seconds to install.
“For the first few years after Miriam’s death, our lives were essentially on hold,” said Siobhán. “The court case was only last year and it was only recently that I thought maybe I could do something to make sure no other family had to go through what we went through. I thought maybe something positive could come out of Miriam’s death.”
Earlier this year, Siobhán was in contact with a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, tasked with preparing a report on the regulation and inspection of gas installers in Ireland.
To her disappointment, “they didn’t include any recommendation around carbon monoxide alarms in public or commercial places”, but she does acknowledge that at least there have been some improvements by way of legislation requiring all new build dwelling houses have to have them installed.
“I have spoken with the committee chair, John O’Mahony [of Fine Gael], and he took my concerns on board,” Siobhán said.
“One of the report’s recommendations is that an independent expert be appointed to conduct a thorough investigation of the [gas boiler installation] sector so that is something positive anyway.”
Last November, plumbing contractor Richard Davis from Serenity, Killanully, Ballygarvan, Co Cork, was acquitted of Miriam’s manslaughter.
The State had claimed Mr Davis did not correctly convert the boiler, did not follow the guidelines issued for the process, and failed to carry out a safety test after the conversion of the boiler from natural gas to liquid petroleum gas. He was acquitted of all charges.
“The case drained us physically and emotionally so it’s really only in the last couple of months that I’ve had time to reflect on what I could do so that Miriam’s death was not in vain,” said Siobhán.
And so, as she gears up to increase awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide and to lobby for change, she already has the Irish Hotels Federation in her crosshairs, as well as nursing homes.
“I’m only in the early stages but I will be writing to them to ask if they would consider installing carbon monoxide alarms,” she said.
In the meantime, although devastated by their loss, she and her family do their best to get on with life. Patricia gave birth to a little girl three years ago. Marie got married with the blessing of the Reidy family, although her big day was “tainted by tragedy”.
Siobhán said it’s been very difficult for her parents — their golden wedding anniversary is approaching and they have lost a daughter.
“But we’re a very close family and together we are managing,” said Siobhán. “We do take the view ‘thank God we have Trish’. You just have to get up everyday and get on with it. We lost her and nothing will bring her back, but we can try to change things so other families are spared what we went through.”
- Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur anywhere that fossil fuels are burned — that includes oil, gas, peat, turf, wood and wood pellets, petrol, diesel, and coal;
- Use a registered gas installer, oil technician or qualified service technician for your fuel type when getting fuel burning appliances serviced annually;
- Have your chimney swept annually;
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm;
- Carbon monoxide can kill in three minutes and each year claims the lives of six people in Ireland.