Tougher sentences sought for companies fined over Limerick bridge deaths

Paul Murphy was told by Limerick Coroner John McNamara that it was a miracle he escaped with his life.

THE Director of Public Prosecutions is seeking stiffer sentences against two companies who admitted criminal charges relating to the deaths of two stonemasons, their inquest heard today.

The inquest jury of three women and three men recorded a verdict of misadventure in the deaths of Bryan Whelan and TJ O’Herlihy.

The jury found in accordance with medical evidence, outlined at Limerick Coroner’s Court, that both men died by drowning in the River Shannon at Limerick City on August 29, 2015.

Mr Whelan (29) of O’Briensbridge, Co Clare and Mr O’Herlihy (26) of Castleisland, Co Kerry had been working in a steel cage hung over the side of Thomond Bridge by a wire rope that was attached to a lorry-mounted winch crane.

A safety mechanism that should have prevented the winch from becoming overloaded failed and the wire rope snapped causing the steel cage, with the two men inside, to fall into the flooded river.

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The inquest, held at Kilmallock courthouse, was told that an audible alarm, which should have warned the crane operator of the critical situation, also failed.

Mr Whelan and Mr O’Herlihy drowned despite the heroic efforts of emergency first responders who rushed to the scene, including members of the voluntary Limerick Marine Search and Rescue Service (LMSRS), Limerick City and County Fire and Rescue Service, Gardaí and HSE paramedics.

Mr Whelan and Mr O’Herlihy, who were harnessed into the cage and wearing life jackets, were trapped in the steel platform under the water and drowned.

Tony Cusack, a senior rescuer with LMSRS, and firefighter Ciaran Keogh, were two of the first responders on the scene.

Mr Cusack rescued Paul Murphy, a third stonemason who had been harnessed into the cage with the other two men, but who had managed to free himself and was being dragged by a fast water current into the wider Shannon Estuary.

Mr Keogh, who was lowered off the bridge by a rope to the cage, along with Mr Cusack, and their colleagues, made valiant efforts to keep Mr Whelan and Mr O’Herlihy alive.

They had to cut the two trapped men from their harnesses to get them to shore.

In his evidence, Paul Murphy said there was a ‘stop-go’ traffic system in place on the bridge on the day, and both he and his two workmates “were afraid we would fall out of the cage if the lorry got a tip on the bridge”.

Mr Murphy said he had never before worked out of a cage over a bridge and, because he couldn’t swim,  he was worried about the consequences if the cage collapsed into the river.

Recalling the moment the cage fell into the water, Mr Murphy said: “All I heard was a bang, I knew the rope was after breaking, I remember falling, like a rollercoaster, and dropping into the River Shannon.”

“I took a deep breath as I hit the water, my life jacket inflated and I swallowed a gulp of water.”

“I had been thinking about this happening all week as I couldn’t swim.”

“I remember felling my harness clip, I unclipped it, then I hit my head off of something. I was kicking trying to swim.”

After freeing himself from the cage, Mr Murphy said he “spat out some water and floated down river”.

Tony Cusack pulled him aboard the LMSRS rapid response boat and they continued on towards Thomond Bridge.

Limerick Marine Search and Rescue senior volunteer Tony Cusack.

LMSRS volunteers and specially trained fire fighter water rescuers  continued efforts to save the other two men who were both pronounced dead at University Hospital Limerick.

The operator of the lorry-mounted crane, Richie Hughes, told Health and Safety Authority Inspector Dermot O’Brien that he hadn’t much experience of operating the remote control function of the crane.

He said he was not shown a risk assessment or safety statement in relation to the work he was to perform on the day.

Mr O’Brien said the DPP is appealing sentences imposed on Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd and Palfinger Ireland Ltd last October, on the basis that the sentences were unduly lenient.

The two companies were fined a total of €225,000 at Limerick Circuit Criminal Court on October 7, 2022 after pleading guilty to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Palfinger admitted failing to take steps necessary to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane’s operations, to ensure it would operate safely.

Nationwide admitted it failed as an employer to ensure that contracted workers were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare.

It also admitted failing to ensure the winch crane, and in particular the overload safety system, was in a safe condition on the day.

Paul Murphy said his supervisor “told us to clip on our harnesses at all times because we would be scrutinised by the authorities”.

There was no safety boat in the water while the men worked in the cage. However, unlike the wearing of harnesses, this was not a legal requirement.

Mr Murphy said the cage got snagged on the bridge a couple of times on the day and he noticed it was vibrating more than on previous days, but he didn’t mention this to anyone.

He said he did not see anyone carry out regular daily checks on the lifejackets or harnesses.

He had not seen a risk assessment on the day of the fatal incident, but safety related paperwork had been shown to him on a previous day.

Coroner John McNamara and Inspector Geraldine Thompson, Bruff Garda Station, passed on their condolences to the dead men’s families.

Mr McNamara said that although the three stonemasons were “working on a job that carried some element of danger, one would expect safety to be of paramount importance”.

He added it was a miracle Mr Murphy managed to escape with his life.

Speaking after the inquest, Sean Fitzgerald of HOLMS Assist  Solicitors, acting for the Whelan family and Paul Murphy, said the outcome was “a step towards closure”.

“They have waited almost eight years to be able to get a death certificate for their 29-year old son Bryan.”

“We would like to thank the Coroner’s Court for its time and we welcome today’s verdict of misadventure, death by drowning –  but it would have been less distressing for Bryan’s family if they had received his death certification and autopsy report earlier.”

“The family would also like to thank the emergency services, fire department, search and rescue services, for everything they did to try to save their son’s life.”

Solictor Sean Fitzgerald (left) with members of Bryan Whelan’s family after today’s inquest.