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Coroner to ask Donegal County Council to examine steep ditch in which man drowned

Dr McCauley was speaking at the inquest in Donegal on Wednesday

Donegal courthouse

Donegal Town courthouse

Donegal coroner Dr Denis McCauley told an inquest that he would ask Donegal County Council to look at a particularly steep-sided, deep ditch in which a man drowned after falling.

The coroner was speaking at the inquest of Thomas (Tommy) Kelly of Rathfort Crescent, Belleek who died on February 20, 2020 at the age of 37. The inquest took place in Donegal Town Courthouse on Wednesday last.

Evidence was heard from Mr Kelly’s partner Laura Keenaghan. She outlined events earlier in the evening. The couple had visited Mr Kelly’s sister who was home from America and staying in Creevy. 

Mr Kelly wanted to be dropped off for a few pints in Belleek on the way home. His partner had been expecting him home by 10pm.

“I phoned at 10.20pm and he said he would come home in half an hour,” she said.

“He never came home.

“Sometimes stayed with his parents when out in Belleek so I assumed he was there.”

Ms Keenaghan outlined how, the next day, she had contacted pubs in Belleek as well as her partner’s brother who began a search.

Later that day she received the tragic news that Mr Kelly had been found dead. 

“I would like to say I loved Tommy and I miss him every day,” she said.

The inquest then heard from Mr Kelly’s brother Pauric.

Initially, he hadn’t been overly concerned about his brother. At 5pm he carried out a search because of his father’s concerns.

“I drove up and down the road looking in drains,” he said. 

Later, he was joined by his brother Willie for a time. 

Pauric Kelly contacted a number of publicans in Belleek and was told by one of them that Tommy had been seen on the street at 11pm.

He also contacted Straddle Service Station and asked if he could view CCTV.

The footage revealed at 12.13am, Tommy Kelly walked across the forecourt in a direction that would have taken him toward Cloghore.

“I went looking again,” he said, outlining how he walked along the road while Terry Hughes from the filling station followed him slowly in his car.

It was during this search that the remains were discovered.

“I looked down into a deep drain,” said Pauric Kelly. 

“Tommy was prostrate in the ditch. There was no doubt that he was dead. 

“I didn’t go down to Tommy as I thought it might be a crime scene.”

Sergeant Stewart Doyle of Ballyshannon Garda Station told the inquest that he had been aware that Mr Kelly had been reported missing to the PSNI.

He attended the scene after the remains were discovered. A garda forensic officer also attended.

Both officers gave evidence of the remains being in a deep ditch from which it would have been extremely difficult to climb out.

Sgt Doyle added that it had been lashing rain and there was more water in the ditch than usual. 

Both gardaí agreed that there was no evidence to suggest that a vehicle or any other third party had been involved in the incident.

Pauric Kelly pointed out that the road from Belleek to Ballyshannon was a dangerous place to walk on at night.

“There is a school about 1 ½ miles from Belleek,” he said. “Roadworks there made it less passable. There is a good population. There should be a footpath.”

He added that there were briars growing over the ditch and he never knew it was there until he went looking for his brother.

On examining a photo of the scene, Dr McCauley acknowledged that it was impossible to see that there was a ditch there, and that there wasn’t much room at the side of the carriageway.

Senior Pathologist at Letterkenny University Hospital Dr Gerry O’Dowd gave evidence of an autopsy carried out by a colleague. He said that while there were some external scratches, there was no significant external trauma.

Dr O’Dowd said that results of an internal examination were consistent with asphyxiation due to drowning. 

“We normally associate drowning with immersion,” he said. “But it is possible to drown in three or four inches of water, so I would describe this as a drowning death.”

Regarding a toxicology report, Dr O’Dowd said Mr Kelly’s blood alcohol level had been 242mg per 100ml.

Dr McCauley pointed out that as a guide, the legal driving limit was 50mg per 100ml of blood.

“Someone who probably was a leisure drinker would be intoxicated at 242mg,” he said. 

“He would be more likely to misjudge the road.”

In returning a finding on the cause of death, Dr McCauley said: “We think that he fell into a ditch that had water in it and that water made its way into his lungs.

“I think the alcohol unfortunately had a contributing effect.

The pathologist agreed, but added: “For him to get out of the drain would be extremely difficult even if he didn’t have alcohol taken.”

The coroner pointed out that while it would have been difficult for anybody to get out of the ditch even without drink, alcohol would have played a part in him falling in. 

He therefore returned a finding of death by drowning, with alcohol a factor.

Because the alcohol was found to be a factor, the death was described as accidental, but by misadventure, meaning Mr Kelly’s actions had added to the risk.

Dr McCauley stressed that this was simply a fact rather than a judgement on Mr Kelly.

The coroner then asked those present if they felt the ditch was peculiarly dangerous and if it merited a formal mention in addition to the inquest finding.

Gardaí agreed that it was particularly deep with a very steep slope, as did the family.

Pauric Kelly said: “I wouldn’t like to see it happen to anyone else again.

“My view is that he stepped in to get out of traffic and lost his footing. That could have happened if he was sober.”

The coroner said he would put a rider to ask the county council to examine that area to see if it was safe in their view.

Dr McCauley expressed his condolences to the family, as did Sergeant Caroline Meehan on behalf of An Garda Síochana. 

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