Belfast Telegraph

They answered the call of duty but were to pay ultimate price, trapped in a burning car

Joanne Sweeney on the fateful night four officers lost their lives when their vehicle went up in flames, jamming the doors

They paid the ultimate price for responding to the aid of their fellow officers. Constables James Magee, Kevin Gorman, Declan Greene and Kenny Irvine lost their lives answering the call of duty one dark, damp November night six years ago.

They were much-loved fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and partners who died in truly horrific circumstances that still leaves their families and fellow officers traumatised today.

To their colleagues, they were men to be trusted and relied upon in times of need.

The constables were based in Kilkeel, south Down, and worked between Warrenpoint and Rostrevor.

It was an "ordinary, busy night" on November 23, 2008. They attended a domestic violence incident - something driver James Magee volunteered to handle - provided cover for a house search and attended a house party that threatened to get out of hand.

Bottles were thrown at their vehicle and they had to maintain a discreet presence in case the people they were protecting turned on them.

It was so busy that they were asked to work beyond their shift. Being the dedicated "fine officers" they were said to have been, they easily agreed.

They were the first unit to respond to a call for emergency assistance that night. Three of their colleagues, two female and one male officer, were struggling arresting a man amid a drunken crowd who were beginning to turn nasty.

The officers left Warrenpoint to travel along the shore road to Rostrevor to assist. It was a road that all of them had travelled many times before while doing their duty.

But that night was to be their last trip.

Somehow, just after 4am, the rear wheels of their armoured Mitsubishi Shogun lost control as they rounded a sharp right-hand bend.

The vehicle swung out 180 degrees, sliding over the road, its rear crashing into the low wall of Moygannon bridge, crushing the fuel tank and setting off a series of deadly incidences.

An intense fire was ignited at the back of the car, cutting off a possible escape route for the young men. Within minutes, the interior was filled with fumes, with flames of five to six metres high raging out of control.

The crash had also jammed the doors - there was no means of escape as the vehicle's escape hatch could not be used due to the fire.

Despite frantic, desperate attempts by officers to break in, nothing could be done to save them.

As one eye-witness told the inquest, "They couldn't get out, and we couldn't get in".

The nine-day inquest examined several contentious issues regarding what happened that night. No witness saw how the crash happened so the police investigation and the inquest looked at the speed of the vehicle, the road conditions, fitting of tyres, the adequacy of driver training, the overloading of the vehicle and the suitability to carry out emergency response calls at speed.

The jury accepted that the driver was travelling within the vehicle's restricted 60mph speed limit when it cornered that last bend.

Nationally-acclaimed collision experts and forensic scientists concluded that something had triggered the rear wheels to lose control.

Either they lost friction as they went over a metal inspection cover in the road or the driver had to steer harder or brake for some reason.

It heard how the PSNI had a force order to instruct that their armoured Shogun should not be used for response purposes, because the high centre of gravity of it - like other 4x4 cars - made it more unstable if driven at speed. The PSNI had decided to armour some 300 vehicles post-purchase when it introduced them to the fleet in 2000-1.

Although testing of the vehicles was done after this, the inquest heard that there was no audit trail to prove this.

One officer gave evidence of not feeling confident with the vehicle's cornering, of how it "moved like a boat and would bolt over the road".

After an accident in Co Tyrone in 2006 when one rolled over, a police sergeant wrote to superiors to say that they "handled abysmally".

Other PSNI officers and officials testified of the vehicle's excellent safety records; how experts at the Motor Institute Research Association after the accident had found that the weight of the armouring had improved stability.

But that night, along with the four men and their heavy control packs, the vehicle was over-weighted.

With an on-going high-level security alert in force in 2008, the officers required the added protection of travelling in armoured vehicles.

Their colleagues still do today.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph