Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Omagh blaze tragedy girl died 'trying to save family'

Heroic Caroline died with rosary beads in her hand

Posthumous award: Caroline McEnhill (13) called the Fire and Rescue Service on her mobile phone

An Ulster schoolgirl died making an emergency 999 call after her stepfather set fire to the family home killing her mother, brothers and sisters.

Trapped and panic-stricken Caroline McElhill (13) managed to get through to an operator to alert the fire service in Omagh, Co Tyrone, but it was too late to save them and she was later found dead in the ruins of the house clutching a phone in one hand, rosary beads in the other.

A spokesperson for the PSNI said last night that the transcript of 13-year-old Caroline's phone call to the emergency services was not being released as the investigation was on-going.

All seven members of the family, including Arthur McElhill (36), who is suspected of starting the blaze, were killed in the inferno a fortnight ago after petrol was sprinkled in the hallway and lounge, and then ignited at the bottom of the stairs.

Caroline made the desperate call for help at 4.54am as the flames began to spread and take hold before the roof collapsed.

Shocking new details of what happened inside the end of terrace house at Lammy Crescent just before the blaze began were disclosed yesterday as police confirmed they were not looking for anybody else in connection with the tragedy.

They stopped short of naming McElhill at the chief suspect, but Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter who is leading the probe said he is to nominate Caroline for a posthumous award in recognition of her bravery.

He said: "This was a young girl, an emblem of innocence, with the courage to seek help and turning to her faith in the midst of fear and danger."

Caroline's sisters, Bellina (4), and Clodagh (18 months), and her brothers, Sean (7) and baby James, just nine months, and their mother Lorraine McGovern, 29, were all alive before the house burst into flames, police said. Post mortem examinations said they died of smoke inhalation in different top floor rooms.

Friends and neighbours of the teenage girl tonight said her bravery and the way in which she acted at a time of unimaginable distress had left them shocked.

Donal McDermott, her headmaster at Sacred Heart College in Omagh where she was in second year, said: "She was a lovely, bubbly girl, so full of zest and life."

Lorraine and the five children were buried together near her extended family home at Corlough, Co Cavan.

McElhill, who had been on medication for depression, was buried in Ederney, Co Fermanagh, where he once lived.

Even though neighbours with a ladder tried desperately to reach him before being forced to retreat, police now believe McElhill might have made some sort of attempt to escape as he was seen to glance backwards and then crouch down below an upstairs window as the house went up in flames.

Superintendent Baxter said the murder inquiry had been complicated and protracted due to a difficult crime scene and the need to process a substantial volume of expert analysis. Much work had to be done before a final, definitive account of what happened could be compiled.

None of the victims, he said, had been tied up, bound or locked in a room and police established the fire was started inside the house after accelerant was deposited in the hallway and lounge. Forensic tests showed it was lit at the base of the stairs.

Superintendent Baxter said in a statement: "It has also been established that the fire could not have ignited from a source external to the house."

Inquests into the circumstances surrounding the deaths will be held later at a coroner's court when more details of Caroline's 999 call can emerge.

Police have a recording and transcript of the conversation between the girl and the operator since it is normal policy to record all emergency calls.

Emergency calls from neighbours who could see smoke and flames have also been logged.

Police papers containing all available evidence will be given to the Public Prosecution Service, but with officers confirming they are not looking for anybody else over the murders, there will be no criminal charges.

There will be demands, however, for a full public inquiry.

And it emerged last night that Children's Commissioner Patricia Lewsley would be prepared to oversee any inquiry herself - provided she was given the staff and funding. In a letter to the Omagh councillor, she said: " Like you, I have been very concerned to ensure that if this family's deaths could have been prevented, then we need to learn the lessons from what went wrong."

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