A couple whose bodies were found in a burnt-out car in Co Antrim died in a suicide pact, a coroner has said.
The remains of Cyril and Phyllis Gardner, both in their 50s, were discovered inside their Ford Focus which had exploded into flames in a field at Green Road, Lisburn, in September 2011. The front seats of the vehicle had been fully reclined and a gas stove was discovered in the back.
An inquest at Belfast's Old Town Hall heard how the couple, from Carnbane Road in the village of Ravernet, outside Hillsborough, had been struggling in the months leading up to their deaths.
Mr Gardner, a digger driver, had battled an alcohol addiction and may also have been suffering from cancer, although he had declined to have symptoms investigated. Mrs Gardner, a school dinner lady and bus supervisor, was being treated for depression and had been on weekend release from a psychiatric unit at Lagan Valley Hospital when she died.
Coroner James Kitson said: "This is a dreadfully sad case. Cyril and Phyllis Gardner died by their own act in what can only be described as a suicide pact. This is a horrific incident and an extreme tragedy for the Gardner family. Death was due to a car fire. But I will also record intentional self-harm committed while the balance of both parties' minds were upset."
Mrs Gardner's body was found in the driver's seat while her husband had been on the passenger side. A PSNI detective said there was nothing to indicate that anyone had approached or left the vehicle, which was parked in a remote location away from view of the road. Detective Inspector Neil McGuinness said the couple had earlier entered another field but were disturbed by a farmer.
The court heard how Mr Gardner, who had been losing weight and drinking heavily in the weeks prior to his death, had spoken of suicidal plans during a drunken telephone call to a life-long friend two weeks before his death.
"He said he was going to get a gas cylinder, get a couple of bottles of vodka, go down behind the garage (at the family home) and they were just going to sleep away," said Jim Baxter, who had known the couple for more than 30 years. Mr Baxter described how his friend told him he wanted to "end it all". He said it was not unusual for Mr Gardner to have had macabre conversations. "I never thought he would do it," added Mr Baxter.
The couple's two daughters choked back tears as the evidence was given in court. Rachel Gardner, who lived with her parents and young son Noah, said her father had previously threatened to take his own life while under the influence of alcohol. He had also overdosed on prescription tablets while her mother was in hospital and claimed he could not cope with her illness. "He made threats before with the drink in him. I just thought he was talking nonsense really. I never thought my mother would do anything like this," she said. Audrey Bostin said she felt her mother, who was suffering from anxiety and depression, had been let down by the healthcare system. "I believe she would have got better through time with me and my sister. She had a lot of support," she said.
Meanwhile, state pathologist Dr Alistair Bently, who carried out post-mortem examinations on the Gardners, said their bodies had been extensively burned and that identification was only possible through DNA analysis. He said the presence of carbon dioxide had been at moderate and low levels which indicated that the couple had been "alive and breathing" when there was a fire in the vehicle. The pathologist said it was impossible to determine what part, if any, the explosion and fire had in their deaths.