Carbon monoxide: A mother's struggle against the silent killer
Catherine McFerran tells Stephanie Bell how the tragic accident that killed her son Neil compelled her to warn others of risks
Catherine McFerran's family found themselves thrust into the limelight in the most tragic of circumstances. Five years ago this summer, the horrifying news that two teenage boys had been found dead in a holiday flat in Castlerock from carbon monoxide poisoning shocked the province.
One of them was Catherine's youngest son, Neil, the other his best friend Aaron Davidson, both just 18 years old.
The boys had studied hard for their A-Levels and had gone to the seaside town to celebrate the end of their exams.
At the time, Catherine didn't know that the threat from carbon monoxide existed and in the weeks after her devastating loss felt compelled to do something to warn others and prevent more deaths.
It meant launching a charity in Neil's memory and putting herself out there to warn people and raise awareness. Catherine - the Belfast Telegraph's Mum of the Year 2014 - is still not entirely at ease in the public eye, but her drive to save lives overrides any discomfort she feels as she seeks to highlight the dangers of the so-called "silent killer" through the Gis a Hug Foundation.
The foundation took its name from Neil, who greeted everybody with a hug, even people he was meeting for the first time.
Neil and Aaron died on August 3, 2010. Their friend, Matthew Gaw, was seriously injured and had to be resuscitated by paramedics.
It was their parents who found them when they travelled from their homes in Newtownabbey to the seaside town, alarmed that they had been unable to contact their sons.
All three teenagers had been poisoned by carbon monoxide because of defective workmanship in the installation of a gas boiler in the apartment.
Last January, Londonderry man George Brown, who fitted the boiler, admitted to causing their deaths. In March, the 52-year-old from Ballygawley Road in Aghadowey was sentenced to two years in jail and two years on licence for the manslaughter of the two boys.
He also pleaded guilty to 19 further charges of failures of health and safety legislation and was fined £19,000.
Carbon monoxide is invisible and odourless and, without an alarm, the boys didn't stand a chance.
Catherine had no idea that such a lethal killer was lurking in many of our homes and that simple awareness could have prevented the boys' deaths. It's why she has been driven ever since to warn others and save lives.
"It still surprises me when I am going round the province giving talks how many people don't know about the dangers," she says.
"We didn't know about it. There was no awareness. When the boys died we were told there had been 62 deaths in Northern Ireland from carbon monoxide poisoning in 10 years. What happened to the other 60? We had never heard of them?.
"That's why we feel it is so important to get the message out there and create awareness and keep reminding people."
To date, the foundation has given out 6,500 carbon monoxide alarms free to students, the elderly and vulnerable in society. Fundraising to buy more alarms is always ongoing.
Gis a Hug also managed to get the law changed so that it is now compulsory for every new-build home to have a carbon monoxide alarm fitted.
Catherine (52) and her husband Johnny (56), a charge hand at Bombardier, have three other children - Jonathan (36), Stephen (27) and Jillian (25).
The family has gained comfort from the positive results of the foundation and at least once a month Catherine and Johnny travel somewhere in Northern Ireland to give talks to schools, and youth, community and church groups warning of the dangers and the steps needed to prevent deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Losing Neil is something which Catherine says her family will never get over and they miss him every single day, but the campaign has given them a focus and allowed something positive to come from their devastating loss.
"It is preventable and we just have to get that across to people," she says.
"It keeps us going. We don't want anyone else to be in the position we are in.
"Life will never be the same again, but you have to get up and get on with it and do your best and this is something positive.
"We have evidence that lives have been saved through the foundation and it's great to know that.
"When we give our talks we have people who tell us they thought that because their heating was electric they were safe, as they thought it was just gas which was a danger.
"People still don't understand, which is why awareness is so important. A big part of the message is that it is preventable.
"We give talks to schools and just to know that young children are going home and telling their parents and grandparents is great.
"By raising awareness among the younger generation hopefully things will get better as time goes on.
"The bottom line is that every home should have a carbon monoxide alarm. It can travel through walls, so people are even at risk from adjoining properties."
In recognition of her dedication to preventing more deaths in memory of her son, Catherine was both astonished and delighted last year to be honoured as Mum of the Year at the annual Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in association with The Outlet. The 2015 award, sponsored by Irwin's Bakery for the fifth time this year, is now open for nominees.
Winning last year was a special moment for Catherine, which she says she will never forget.
Indeed, as she made her way to the stage to collect her trophy at our gala final in the Ramada Hotel there was no doubting how surprised she was.
"It was just wonderful and something I will never forget and always cherish," she says.
"I was so shocked to be nominated and then to be shortlisted was astonishing.
"The night itself was just lovely. I had all my family there and we were enjoying a really lovely night.
"I wasn't even nervous, because I didn't think for one minute I would win; when they called my name I just couldn't believe it and then the nerves kicked in and then I had to go on to the stage and get my award.
"It was an absolute honour and I really appreciated it. l felt very special that night, it is something that will always stay with me."
She adds: "The awards themselves are so special - just the fact that they provide a platform like that for ordinary people in all the categories, it was amazing."
Neil's loss will never leave Catherine and until every home - including holiday homes - has a carbon monoxide alarm installed she will continue her campaign.
Tragic news like that of the elderly couple Francie and Nan O'Reilly, who lost their lives in their Newcastle caravan just last week, hits her hard and compels her to keep up the good work of Gis a Hug.
"You can never presume to know how other people are feeling when something like that happens," she says.
"What happened in Newcastle is very sad. It's horrible. What we are feeling as a family won't ever leave us and we don't want anyone else going through it."
Her message is a simple but crucial one. "It is so important that people get their appliances serviced every year; so many people still think that if they have electric or oil they are safe and that it is only gas that poses a risk. The fact is that all appliances should be serviced at least once a year.
"It is also important that you use a registered engineer who is qualified to work on the particular appliance that you are getting serviced. The engineer will have a card with their ID on one side and on the other it will state the appliance they are registered to service - whether it's cookers or boilers - and it is crucial that people check this and don't feel embarrassed to ask.
"People need to be aware that carbon monoxide is a silent killer.
"You can't see it and you can't smell it or taste it and without an audible alarm you don't have a chance.
"It's lighter than air and rises and can go through walls and ceilings."
She adds: "Every home should have an alarm and people need to know that the alarms should be up high and placed above eye level when standing up. Many people put them on tables or shelves which are too low.
"There is great need out there. I didn't know just how much need there is for awareness until I started to give the talks.
"People still come up to us after a talk and tell us they didn't know about the risks or what they should do to keep safe."
Catherine also warns of the dangers in outbuildings like garages which have appliances, and advises that they too should be fitted with alarms.
Her message also contains advice to people with open fires to have them swept at least once a year by a registered chimney sweep.
"The Health and Safety Executive have a list of all registered engineers and chimney sweeps in your area," she says.
Time to nominate your choice ...
- The Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards, in association with The OUTLET, Banbridge, is now recognised as the biggest celebration of women in Northern Ireland. Once again our annual awards extravaganza will culminate with a gala dinner at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Shaw's Bridge, Belfast, which will be staged on Thursday, March 19
- For each category, the nominee should have been in her line of work for at least 12 months and have shown particular success, a demonstrable measure of achievement, how she inspired others around her, and how she has demonstrated passion, drive and energy in what she does
- The closing date for nominations is noon on Thursday, February 19, 2015. If you know someone who deserves recognition, then get nominating now in one of the categories below:
1. Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Education
2. Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector
3. Belfast Telegraph Sportswoman of the Year
4. Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Health Sector
5. Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year, sponsored by Irwin's
6. Belfast Telegraph Inspirational Woman of the Year
7. Belfast Telegraph Businesswoman of the Year
8. Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Hair, Beauty and Fashion
9. Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Arts
10. Overall Woman of the Year, sponsored by The OUTLET
- To nominate someone you know, tell us in 500 words or less why you think they deserve to win an award. State what award you are entering them for and include a daytime telephone for yourself. Entries can be submitted online at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/woty, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by post to Woman of the Year, Features Department, Belfast Telegraph, 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB
Sponsor acknowledges hard work of mums
The Mum of the Year Award is once again being sponsored by Irwin's, Northern Ireland's leading local bakery
The family-owned Portadown based company has been baking bread for nearly 100 years and are makers of iconic brands such as Nutty Krust, Howell House, Jammy Joeys, Irwin's Softee and the Rankin Selection traditional Irish bread range
Not only has the company continued to go from strength to strength in Northern Ireland but also enjoys a strong presence across the rest of the UK and Ireland
All products are based on traditional Irish recipes and baking methods, including original fermentation and slow-baking processes
Irwin's Nutty Krust was launched in 1963 and since then has been loved by generations of families
Employing 400 people locally, Irwin's has a growth strategy based on product quality, tradition and innovation and plays a major role in the local agri-food sector and wider Northern Ireland economy
Colette Wilson, Irwin's Bakery marketing manager, said: "As a third generation local business which has been baking bread for more than 100 years, Irwin's takes great pride in its family values and is delighted to sponsor the Belfast Telegraph's Mum of the Year award for the fifth year running
"We have a long history of producing breads that mums across Northern Ireland bring to the family table, whether it's Irwin's Muffins for breakfast or Irwin's Softee sandwiches in school lunchboxes - we recognise what mums need when it comes to good value, quality products.
"There are so many amazing mums across Northern Ireland we are honoured to support an award that acknowledges the very special job they do."