Belfast Telegraph

Drink and speed caused fatal road smash: coroner

By Nevin Farrell

A horrific fireball crash, in which two friends were killed, starkly shows how drink-drive advertising campaign warnings need to be heeded, Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey has said.

An inquest in Antrim yesterday heard how Christopher O'Neill and pal Declan McKenna both died after the BMW car in which they were travelling collided with a tree and burst into flames on the Agivey Road in the early hours of July 6 last year.

It was described by those who had to recover the bodies of the two young men as one of the most horrific car crashes they had ever attended.

An eyewitness who arrived on the scene a short time after the 3am smash said flames, which rose to 30ft in the air, engulfed the car and also surrounding trees.

Both men were single and Christopher O'Neill (22) – who was driving – was two and a half times the legal drink limit. He lived at Coleraine Street in Kilrea and was a motor mechanic.

He was described as a rising figure in Sinn Fein and chairman of its Kilrea branch. He stood unsuccessfully for a seat on Coleraine Borough Council in the 2011 local government elections.

His grandfather John Davey, who survived the gun attack by loyalist Michael Stone's during a republican funeral at Milltown Cemetery in 1988, was a Sinn Fein councillor before he was murdered by loyalists in 1989.

Declan McKenna (23), of Ardbann Avenue in Kilrea, who was the front seat passenger in the car, worked as a plumber. His uncle, Noel McKenna, was a former SDLP mayor of Derry City.

Coroner John Leckey said it was likely the effects of drink and the speed of the vehicle – which was travelling at up to 85mph in a 60mph zone before it spun onto a layby – contributed to the accident.

Mr Leckey said: "This was a terrible loss to each family and if the question is asked 'why did this horror happen?' the answer must inevitably reflect the speed... and the driver should not have been drinking and that he was two and a half times the legal limit.

"If you have alcohol at all in your system you shouldn't drive."

Mr Leckey added that perhaps the tragedy shows the message from advertising campaigns not to drink and drive needs to be taken onboard.

He said both men died at the scene of the crash where the car burst into flames shortly before 3am.

Mr Leckey said the weather was good and the road was dry.

The coroner said a forensic report showed the driver lost control on a bend and that the speed was estimated at between 75-85mph. He said the tragedy occurred on a bend which any driver should have been able to negotiate.

Addressing PSNI officer Peter Grimes, who attended the scene, Mr Leckey said: "This must have been one of the worst vehicle collision scenes you have come across," and the officer agreed it was "very harrowing indeed".

The families of the deceased sat beside each other in the small courtroom as Mr Leckey also said: "It must have been a terrible experience for all involved in body recovery. I have no doubt it was a harrowing ordeal for all the firefighters and others involved at that time."

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