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Millimetres 'would've saved couple'

Published 21/04/2015

A candid snap of devoted couple Nan and Francie O’Reilly, who died together in their caravan in Newcastle on Wednesday from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning
A candid snap of devoted couple Nan and Francie O’Reilly, who died together in their caravan in Newcastle on Wednesday from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning
The picturesque Mourne location of Bonny’s Caravan Park
A police officer at the scene of the tragedy
The grill door being open by a few millimetres probably would have saved the couple's lives, Belfast Coroner's Court heard

A retired couple accidentally poisoned by gas cooker fumes would have survived if the grill door had been opened by a few millimetres, an inquest has heard.

John 'Francie' and Frances 'Nan' O'Reilly were found dead in January in the living room of the static caravan they had lived in for 30 years in the seaside town of Newcastle, Co Down, in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Coroner's Court heard they owned a gas cooker which had been the subject of a number of safety warnings about the serious risks of carbon monoxide build-up associated with operating the grill with the door closed.

When the couple, both aged in their mid-70s, were found the grill was turned on and the door was closed.

Principal inspector with the Health and Safety Executive NI, Jim King, told coroner John Leckey that even having the door slightly ajar would have enabled enough air to get to the flame to keep it alight and prevent the gas build up.

"The difference is a few millimetres," he said.

"That would probably have saved their lives.

"We are looking at a terrible tragedy - a few millimetres would have made the difference."

Mr Leckey said the case demonstrated the often "fine line between life and death".

Mr King told the court the O'Reillys' cooker - a New World Vision 50WLM - was among 17 models from four brands owned by manufacturer Beko that had been subject to product warnings.

The cookers are used in all types of kitchens, not just caravans.

He said the cookers complied with EU regulations and were "perfectly safe" to use with the grill door open, but he said they had a specific flaw that, if operated against guidelines with the door closed, could cause a large volume of carbon monoxide to build up.

The inspector said he was aware of six other deaths in the British Isles - three in England and Wales, two in the Irish Republic and one in Northern Ireland - caused by operating one of the cookers with the door closed, between 2008 and 2009.

He said Beko had issued a number of product warnings, which offered advice on how to get the cookers modified.

Mr King said the modification involved cutting portions out of the seal to ensure air flowed to the flame even when the door was closed.

In regard to the O'Reillys' cooker, he added: "The modification recommended in the safety notice had not been carried out."

Mr O'Reilly was a gardener and his wife a retired shopkeeper. They did not have any children.

Their nephew Vincent Marks told Mr Leckey they were "set in their ways".

"New appliances - they wouldn't have been up to date with them," he said.

"They wouldn't have been up to date people."

The couple lived full time on a plot in Bonny's caravan park.

It encompasses a sprawling series of caravans, mobile homes and amenity buildings nestled against the lower slopes of the scenic Mourne Mountains. It has been open for decades and a number of caravans in a residential part of the site are occupied throughout the year.

Emlyn Williamson, manager of the park, said the O'Reillys were one of the longest residents.

He said their caravan was 30 years old and was past its best. But he told the coroner he and his staff did not put any pressure on customers to buy more modern homes.

Mr King said the caravan was poorly ventilated and the issue of carbon monoxide build-up had been compounded by the fact a gas heater was also operating at the time of the incident.

He later told the coroner of the steps the HSENI had been taking to get the message out about keeping "gas safe", making particular reference to the importance of carbon monoxide alarms.

Mr Leckey said he was heartened to hear efforts were being made to highlight the dangers.

But he expressed concern at the ease with which someone could "inadvertently" close a grill door.

"You could simply brush into it and close it," he said.

The coroner also suggested it could be difficult for some people to locate, and even read, the serial number of their cooker to determine whether it was one included in a safety warning.

He urged Mr Williamson, and managers of caravan parks across Northern Ireland, to regularly inform customers about potential problems using gas.

Mr Williamson said warnings were posted on the camp's noticeboard and, on one occasion, sent out to customers with their annual bill. He said he would endeavour to post out another warning this year.

Recording the cause of death as poisoning by carbon monoxide, Mr Leckey extended his condolences to relatives of the O'Reilly's sitting in court.

He added: "It's probable some good will come out of it as others will be alert to the dangers."

In August 2010, two teenagers were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in Northern Ireland.

Neil McFerran and Aaron Davidson died after a gas leak in a holiday apartment in Castlerock, County Londonderry.

The 18-year-olds had been staying at the apartment near Coleraine with a third friend, Matthew Gaw, who survived. The three men were found by relatives.

The law surrounding carbon monoxide alarms was tightened as a result and the warning devices are a legal requirement in all new homes.

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