Gas fitter 'caused friends' deaths'
A gas fitter's laziness and cavalier attitude to the dangers of carbon monoxide led to the poisoning deaths of two school friends, a judge said as he handed the rogue workman a four-year sentence.
George Brown will spend two of those years behind bars for the manslaughter by gross negligence of A level students Neil McFerran and Aaron Davidson - deaths Mr Justice Weir described as a "wholly tragic and avoidable disaster" as he passed sentence at Belfast Crown Court.
The 18-year-olds, from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, were overcome by noxious fumes at a holiday apartment in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, in 2010.
Part of the flue from a new gas boiler fitted by Brown's company months earlier became dislodged and filled the flat with the odourless toxin.
The 52-year-old from Aghadowey, Co Derry, initially denied any offending but later pleaded guilty to two charges of manslaughter and a further 19 counts involving failures to comply with health and safety legislation relating to gas installations at a total of 16 properties.
His firm's shoddy workmanship had devastating consequences in the apartment in Castlerock.
Passing sentence at Belfast Crown Court, judge Mr Justice Weir also fined Brown £19,000 for the additional counts relating to health and safety breaches.
The judge said legislation entitled Brown to serve half of his four-year sentence on release licence.
He told Brown, who sat in the dock wearing a dark suit, that his "cavalier attitude" to carbon monoxide, a gas he described as a "silent killer", was hard to fathom
"It is impossible to comprehend and entirely reprehensible," he said.
Relatives of the dead men wept in the public gallery as sentence was passed, but Brown showed no emotion.
Mr McFerran and Mr Davidson had been on a break in the seaside town as they awaited their A-level results.
Their friend, Mathew Gaw, survived the incident. He was rescued when family members broke into the property when they realised something had gone wrong. By that stage the other two men were already dead.
Brown, from Ballygawley Road in Aghadowey, ran a gas shop in Coleraine and had been asked to investigate a problem at the apartment earlier in 2010.
He recommended replacing the boiler and flue and converting the burner from natural gas to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
Experts concluded that part of the flue, used to carry emissions from the boiler to the outside through a void in the apartment ceiling, had separated because sections were not secured properly at a right-angle bend.
At least two screws were missing and the metal sections did not overlap or slot into each other far enough, allowing them to come loose.
The court heard that the owner of the property had spent two nights there between the installation and the tragedy and had felt unwell on both occasions - ill health her doctor diagnosed as vertigo.
Justice Weir said the fact she had run the boiler on a timer system, which cut it off during the night, had probably saved her life.
The judge heavily criticised Brown for the failure to secure the flue joint.
"Sheer laziness was responsible," he said.
The judge noted that Brown had not been forthcoming about who actually fitted the flue - him or one of his workmen.
But he said Brown carried overall responsibility, explaining he had day-to-day control of work carried out by the company and he had been guilty of deploying workmen on gas installation jobs who were not adequately trained to carry them out.
Noting that issues with flue pipes had subsequently been identified at five other properties Brown's company had worked on, the judge said media coverage of the deaths in Castlerock may actually have saved other lives, as worried householders got their systems checked out.
"The publicity this received may have saved other customers from death or serious injury," he said.
Justice Weir acknowledged the deaths of the men had had a huge impact on Brown and had seen him and his wife effectively ostracised by their local community.
The judge accepted the fitter had shown remorse.
Referring to impact statements provided to court by the relatives of the dead men and the sole survivor, Mr Weir added: "They have been gravely and permanently affected by the loss and near loss of their boys."
After the sentence hearing, the Police Service of Northern Ireland detective who led the investigation paid tribute to the two friends and their families.
Detective Chief Inspector Rachel Shields said: "It could have been avoided, it should have been avoided and it sends a stark message to other service providers of the duty of care that they have to have.
"These boys, Aaron and Neil, were good boys, they had just done their A-levels, they had their whole lives ahead of them, and it breaks your heart to hear of the tragic outcome of such shoddy workmanship."
She added: "While the judge in giving the sentence today acknowledged all of the circumstances surrounding the incident; no sentence will ever bring Aaron or Neil back. It is an extremely difficult day for Aaron and Neil's families and I would like to thank them for their relentless bravery and the unequivocal support that they gave to all the various stages of this extensive investigation."
Louis Burns, head of the major investigation team at Northern Ireland's Health and Safety Executive NI, said:
"The tragic and untimely deaths of Neil and Aaron from carbon monoxide poisoning serve as a potent reminder of the dangers this deadly gas poses.
"Our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of Aaron and Neil at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are also with Mathew Gaw who was seriously injured in this terrible incident.
"Today's sentencing is the culmination of one of the biggest investigations and at times complex, ever undertaken by HSENI and we'd like to thank our colleagues in the PSNI's Criminal Investigation Department for their support."
During his sentencing remarks, the judge was critical of the length of time it had taken to get the case to court.
Both the PSNI and HSENI defended their approach.
Ms Shields said it was a "very complex and technical case".
"It was important that we took our time and we got it right for the families most importantly, and we got the right outcome and I am pleased with the fact that we have secured the right outcome today," she said.
Mr Burns noted that 300 witnessed were involved in the overall investigation.
"We will take on board the comments made by the judge but from our perspective and the police's perspective we believe that the case was a very complicated, very technical case and the file was investigated properly and submitted within a reasonable time scale."
He added: "It's better to do the investigation correctly and properly and thoroughly and I think today is testament to that, rather than try to rush it and maybe make mistakes."