Court hears how two stonemasons drowned as a result of firms' failures over winch safety mechanism

Thomond Bridge at Limerick City

The Thomond Bridge at Limerick City. Two stonemasons died when the steel cage they were harnessed to for carrying out repairs plummeted into the river below. A third man managed to free himself from his harness and was rescued from the river.

Sentencing of two companies involved in bridge repairs that led to the drowning of two stonemasons will take place in October, Limerick Circuit Court in Ireland decided this week (27 July).

The men drowned when a steel cable holding the cage they were working in snapped and the cage fell into the River Shannon. They had been working on Thomond Bridge at Limerick City.

The men were wearing life jackets but were connected to the cage by harnesses and could not free themselves. They were said to have been just 60cm under water. A third man did manage to get free of the harness and was rescued from the river.

The incident happened in 2015 (read the report at the time here).

The men who died were Bryan Whelan (29) from Co Clare and TJ O’Herlihy (36) from Co Kerry. Relatives of the deceased left the court in tears as the court saw a video of the moment the steel cage fell into the river.

Separate investigations by the Gardai (police) and the Health & Safety Authortiy (HSA) followed the incident and, as a result, criminal charges were brought against two companies: Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd of Dock Road, Limerick, and Palfinger Ireland Ltd of Church Hill, Cloncollog, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

The investigations found that a crane was mounted on a flat-bed lorry on the bridge with an extendable telescopic winch that held the cage by a wire cable. A safety mechanism preventing weight overloading on the crane had failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on the wire cable holding the cage. The cable snapped and the cage fell into the river with the three men harnessed to it.

The two companies were in court this week (27 July). Both pleaded guilty to breaches of the Health & Safety at Work Act.

Palfinger had supplied the winch crane involved in the incident to Nationwide in 2003, but the court heard that the crane’s user manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequent testing of the crane’s overload protection system, which it emerged had failed on the day of the tragedy.

Palfinger pleaded guilty to having failed to take steps to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane and its operation to ensure it would be safe in use.

Nationwide pleaded guilty to failing to ensure people employed by it were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare.

Dermot O’Brien, lead investigator from HSA, said the two defendant companies had co-operated fully with the Authority’s probe and he hoped the information gathered would prevent similar tragedies.

Judge Tom O’Donnell said it would be inappropriate to deliver an immediate judgment after hearing a significant amount of evidence and “deeply poignant” victim impact statements. He adjourned sentencing to 7 October.