Coroner warns about putting materials on heaters after woman dies in housefire

April 6, 2022

A coroner has warned people about putting materials on heaters following the death of a woman in a fire in Co Donegal.

Pauline O’Riordan perished at her Letterkenny home in January, 2018.

The 57-year-old had not been seen by friends and neighbours for a while.

When Gardai eventually entered Ms O’Riordan’s home at New Brook Court she was lying on the floor of her sitting room covered in black soot.

A forensic examination of the scene found a fire had started after a blanket had been placed over a heater.

Smoke from the fire had released carbon monoxide into the room leading to Ms O’Riordan’s death.

The scene of the tragedy was first discovered by Ms O’Riordan’s friend Aine Crossan on a very frosty day on January 8th at around 2pm.

Ms Crossan told the inquest at Letterkenny Courthouse that she had been asked by Ms O’Riordan’s daughter Cailin to check on her mother as she hadn’t been able to reach her.

Ms Crossan met another neighbour who got in through a rear window and opened the front door.

She noticed the front sitting room was very dark and thought it was heavy curtains before realising it was smoke damage.

She went into the sitting room when the front door was opened and was met by a chemical smell and soot but did not see Ms O’Riordan and called Gardai.

Garda Daire Sheridan said he arrived on the scene about 3pm and found the deceased victim on the floor with her right leg raised on the sofa.

The entire room was covered in a fine soot which left footprints as he walked through the room.

He contacted the Garda forensic team and a local doctor who pronounced Ms O’Riordan dead at 3.35pm.

Scenes of crime examiner Garda John Madigan gave evidence including finding two smoke alarms in the house but neither of them contained batteries.

Paul Collins, a consultant forensic engineer, said he carried out an extensive report into the cause of the fire.

His conclusion was that a blanket made from a manmade material had been placed over the heater which had gone on fire.

He said this created a thick black smoke throughout the room but that the circuit which sent power to the heater then tripped turning off the heater.

He added that Ms O’Riordan would have fallen asleep within the “muggy atmosphere” and would have been dying before she realised something had happened.

He said she may have sat up but would have fallen down on the floor as a result of the smoke.

“I don’t think Pauline would have know a lot that was happening in the room,” added Mr Collins.

Pathologist Dr Hajnalka Gyorffy said Ms O’Riordan had a history of depression and when examined there was a smell of smoke from her remains as well as some first degree burning on her arm.

Her body was covered in soot and her lungs were also congested with soot.

She also added that the victim had suffered smoke inhalation as well gases from the fire.

Coroner Dr Denis McCauley said the evidence was that it was a cold night and that Ms O’Riordan had put material on a heater for some reason.

He said the material caught fire and although the heater was tripped, the material produced carbon monoxide which put Pauline asleep.

He added there was some evidence that she had consumed some alcohol but said this was a ‘smaller factor.’

He said he agreed with the assessment of the pathologist that death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning due to a fire and said the death was accidental.

He added that anyone has put a blanket on a heater but added that we should be very careful particularly if there is an element underneath the heater.

He expressed his condolences to the family of the late Ms O’Riordan who was originally from County Limerick.