'Shoddy' gas fitter killed two
A gas fitter who admitted causing the deaths of two teenagers by carbon monoxide poisoning oversaw shoddy and dangerous workmanship, a judge has told a court.
Neil McFerran and Aaron Davidson were overcome by noxious fumes at a holiday apartment in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 2010.
George Brown, 52, carried out work he was not competent to do and admitted his criminality, a prosecution barrister told Belfast Crown Court.
Part of the flue from a new gas boiler became dislodged and filled the flat with the odourless killer.
Mr Justice Weir said: "This was characterised by shoddy, dangerous workmanship and this man presided over it."
He said far more people could have died because Brown was responsible for many other gas installations.
He said: "At least it has brought to light that this man and his business were going around this area carrying out substandard and dangerous gas installations."
Prosecution barrister Frank O'Donohue QC said: "The breach of duty was so serious as to constitute gross negligence."
Neil and Aaron, 18, from Newtownabbey near Belfast, had been on a break in the seaside town after doing their A-levels.
They watched the sun come up over the dramatic North Coast on August 3, 2010 then retired to go back to sleep.They never woke up.
Their friend Mathew Gaw was also in the apartment and woke on the bathroom floor with no idea how he had gotten there, Mr O'Donohue added, stumbling into the living room and talking to his father on the phone, who said he sounded drunk.
The lawyer said: "He kept telling Aaron to wake up and attempted to throw a cup of water over him. The cup dropped and broke."
He then tried to catch water in his hand to revive his friend.
The barrister added: "Water ran through his fingers."
He remembered putting his head in his hands in confusion. Eventually he was rescued when the boys' worried parents went to the holiday home, Belfast Crown Court was told.
Mr Brown, from Ballygawley Road in Aghadowey, ran a gas shop in Coleraine and was 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, 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 ovelap or slot into each other far enough, allowing them to come loose, the court was told following expert examination of the equipment.
Brown initially denied any offending and blamed a joiner who also did work on the apartment for dislodging the flue.
He failed to answer questions during interview but his fingerprints were found on the flue, Mr O'Donohue told the court.
Mr Justice Reg Weir said: "When things went wrong he wanted to shuttle the blame off onto someone else."
Although Brown had gas safety papers, his workman was not qualified to convert natural gas boilers to LPG and the judge questioned whether the defendant should have been admitted to the safety course in the first place.
He added: "This matter is an unmitigated tragedy for everyone and it could so easily have been avoided with a little bit of care."
He called for the danger posed by the fuel to be highlighted, along with the importance of safety precautions like fitting carbon monoxide alarms.
He said: "It is a very sad case in which it is very difficult to find anything comforting to say to anyone."
Mr O'Donohue said gas had long been recognised as a lethal hazard. He added: "It is the prosecution case that the defendant and his work fell well short of the proper standard.
"There is evidence of widespread poor workmanship at other locations within the greater Coleraine area.
"This was a small business in which the defendant had a hands-on role. He was directly involved in at least some of the work at the apartment and as a result of his lack of cooperation with the interview process it is not possible to know the true extent to which he was actually involved in the installation process."
He said aggravating factors in the offences included the fact that more than one person died and a third suffered near fatal injuries and that Brown used an unqualified employee to undertake the work.
Defence barrister Eilis McDermott QC said her client closed his business the day he found out about the deaths and would never open again.
A statement from him read out in court said: "My business is completely finished. I am not cavalier about it. I will never do this job again. These deaths are a complete travesty."
He pleaded guilty to two manslaughter charges and a further 19 involving failures to comply with health and safety legislation.The case was adjourned for sentencing on Thursday.