Men who fell to their deaths in the River Shannon were trapped in a steel cage after the crane’s safety mechanism failed, the court hears

Two men fell to their deaths in the River Shannon after a safety mechanism on a crane holding a steel cage containing the men failed, a court heard today.

There were emotional scenes here as members of both men’s families left the court while harrowing video footage played of the moment the steel cage carrying their loved ones plunged into the river.

A safety mechanism aimed at preventing weight overload on the crane failed, resulting in “excruciating strain” on a wire rope that “snapped” holding the cage containing the men above the river, senior prosecutor Shane Costelloe SC said .

The tragedy happened around 3:40 p.m. and was witnessed by members of the public.

The two men who died, Bryan Whelan (29), O’Briensbridge, Co. Clare, and TJ O’Herlihy (36), Castleisland, Co. Kerry, drowned as they were unable to escape from the cage.

Both stonemasons were caged and wearing life jackets as required by health and safety legislation while carrying out special repair work on the south side of Thomond Bridge in Limerick City on August 29, 2015.

A third worker, Paul Murphy, Askeaton, who was also working on the platform at the time, was able to free his harness and was rescued by rescue workers in the Shannon Estuary.


Members of the O’Herlihy and Whelan families on their way to the inquest into their sons’ deaths, which took place in Thomond Bridge, Limerick, in 2015. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Separate investigations by the Gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) followed, resulting in criminal charges against two companies – Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd, Dock Road, Limerick, and Palfinger Ireland Ltd, Church Hill, Cloncollog, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Both companies pleaded guilty to violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Palfinger delivered the winch crane to Nationwide on March 12, 2003, but unbeknownst to Palfinger, the crane’s operator’s manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequently testing the crane’s overload protection system, which was later found to have failed that day of “catastrophic tragedy”.

The crane was mounted on the bridge on a low-loader with an extendable telescopic winch, which held the men in the platform cage using a wire rope or cable.

Palfinger pleaded guilty to failing to take the necessary steps to ensure Nationwide received adequate information about the crane and its operation to ensure it was safe when in operation.

Nationwide pleaded guilty to failure as an employer to ensure that contract workers were not exposed to hazards to their safety, health and welfare and to failure to ensure the winch crane was in safe condition, particularly the overload protection system, and “as a result, TJ O’Herlihy and Bryan Whelan died”.

There were emotional scenes in court as Mr Costelloe read a victim impact statement delivered by Mr O’Herlihy’s partner Therese ‘Tess’ Wigsten, mother of their two young children Conor, 10, and Katie, 7, who all traveled the court proceedings had been drafted from their home in Sweden.

“Conor was three years old and Katie six months when their father died. We were not a “typical or normal” family because our son has a progressive mitochondrial disease and has special needs and he needs full-time help with everything,” Ms Wigsten wrote.

“My children have lost one of the most important people in their lives, their father. Katie hasn’t even met him and will never know what it’s like to be ‘daddy’s girl’.”

Katie Wigsten wrote: “Life would have been nicer and nicer if Dad was still alive. We would have been a family of four, he could help me with my homework and pick me up from school and if I could turn back time I would tell Dad never to take the job so he could stay with us.”

Conor Wigsten wrote: “I miss my dad, wish he were here to help carry me and play with me. I wish he could help me in school.”

Therese Wigsten continued: “What hurts the most is that Katie has had to grow up faster and take on more responsibilities than other kids her age because I have to help Conor all the time [feed him, change his nappy, give him medicine, push his wheelchair, carry him and so on]and so Katie will always come second because she doesn’t have another parent who can give her the love and attention she needs when the other is looking after Conor.”

“I lost the love of my life. Every day is a struggle, our family is broken,” Ms Wigsten added.


The scene at Thomond Bridge, Limerick, in August 2015 where Bryan Whelan and TJ O’Herlihy drowned when the cable holding their cage broke and fell into the water while the men were working on the bridge. Photo: Liam Burke/Press22

Bryan Whelan’s brother, John Paul Whelan, said in court on behalf of his devastated family: “What haunts us most as a family, apart from being without Bryan, is the tragic circumstances of his death. It is a constant and conscious effort that weighs relentlessly on each of us not to address Bryan’s final moments of fear and need as we know he fought to survive that fateful day.

“Bryan was thrilled to be working so close to home and on a project like Thomond Bridge of which he was very proud. It’s hard to believe it ended in such tragedy. The bridge now serves as a constant, painful reminder of the devastating and catastrophic events of that day.

“While we are relieved that Palfinger Ireland and Nationwide Crane Hire have accepted responsibility, we have suffered immeasurable sadness and heartbreaking losses. But we hope the lessons have been learned and other families will not have to endure the torture and upheaval of such a catastrophic event that could have been avoided.”

HSA lead investigator Dermot O’Brien said the two defendant companies had cooperated fully in the agency’s investigation, which he hoped would help “try to prevent any further similar accidents from happening again”.

Judge Tom O’Donnell said it would be “inappropriate” to issue an immediate ruling because he had listened to a “considerable body of evidence and deeply poignant testimonies about the victim’s impact.”

He adjourned sentencing to October 7. Men who fell to their deaths in the River Shannon were trapped in a steel cage after the crane’s safety mechanism failed, the court hears

Fry Electronics Team

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