The mother of a 22-year-old student who fell 60 feet to his death down a blowhole while camping in Garretstown, Co Cork has paid an emotional tribute to his friends who made heroic efforts to save him.
The inquest into the death of Conor King from Douglas in Cork city heard that his friend Gary Barrett, who was a trained lifeguard, immediately went in to the blowhole in the aftermath of the incident which occurred at around 11.30pm on April 24, 2021.
Coroner Frank O’Connell said the group of Conor’s friends were having an “innocent” night having pitched a tent and lit a fire when tragedy struck.
Conor, who was a biomedical engineering student at MTU, stood up and took a few steps backwards, not realising he was so close to a blowhole.
The inquest in Bandon courthouse heard that Gary, having made his way into the blowhole, performed CPR for forty minutes and had to be persuaded by the emergency services to leave the area to receive treatment for hypothermia.
The inquest was told that he didn’t want to be lifted from the blowhole without his friend.
Other friends had also attempted to help in the rescue in the blowhole. They used their phones as torches and did everything they could to assist their stricken friend prior to the arrival of the emergency services.
At the conclusion of the inquest Conor’s mother Maura made a heartfelt speech to the friends of her son who had given evidence at the inquest.
Maura said that she was forever in the debt of her son’s wonderful group of pals. She asked them to remember the “beautiful days” they had with Conor before his life was ended so prematurely.
Her husband Eamonn also addressed the friends of his only son and said that he was conscious of how good they were to Conor during a life in which he packed in a lot of living. Mr King added that he was glad that Conor had had fun on the night even if it ended with such tragedy.
The inquest had heard evidence from several of the youths who had gone camping in Garretstown beach on the night of the tragedy.
Mark Morton, who knew Conor since first year in Christian Brothers’ College (CBC), said that one minute Conor was talking to them and the next he had fallen into the blowhole.
Mr Morton said they put on their phone flashlights and could see Conor in the blowhole. They started shouting hoping they could wake him. He told gardaí in his statement that Conor “looked perfect” but was completely unresponsive.
He told the Coroner that their friend Gary Barrett, who is a lifeguard, immediately went to the assistance of Conor. He swam into the blowhole through an opening. Mark said that Gary administered CPR and “cradled (Conor) King to stop the waves from hitting him.” Mark said he didn’t see Conor fall as it was so dark and that there "wasn’t a sound” in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Another friend Peter Kilbride said Conor simply took a few steps back and on his fourth or fifth step he fell into a blowhole which they hadn’t realised was there. The inquest heard that a slight incline, along with the darkness, made the blowhole even more deceptive to the eye.
A third friend Ronan Keogh said that they had been play wrestling and Conor had jokingly said “who is next?” Conor took a few steps backwards and fell into the blowhole.
Irish Coastguard volunteer Eamon Barry who assisted in the rescue paid tribute to Gary Barrett for his heroism in attempting to save Conor.
“Gary was experiencing hypothermia but he was very reluctant to leave his friend.”
Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster said that death would have been immediate and that Conor would not have suffered. Conor’s blood alcohol level was consistent with him having six or seven pints of alcohol.
Dr Bolster said that Conor died of polytrauma with head, chest and abdominal injuries consistent with a fall.
Coroner Frank O’Connell recorded a verdict of accidental death. He stated that he planned to write to Cork County Council about the possibility of setting up a danger sign or fencing off the area close to the blowhole.
Both he and gardaí offered their heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Mr King. He also paid tribute to Mr Barrett for his “heroic bravery” on the night whilst commending Mr Barry of the Irish Coastguard whom he said prevented any further tragedy from occurring when he enabled the rescue operation which saw Gary Barrett taken from the blowhole.
Conor King was laid to rest on what would have been his 23rd birthday.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the family of Conor King asked mourners to donate to West Cork Rapid Response and West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue in lieu of flowers. Since the passing of Conor his family and friends have raised thousands of euro in his memory for the emergency services.
Meanwhile, at Conor’s funeral mass in St Patrick's Church in Rochestown, Cork his mother, Maura, told the congregation that her son had succeeded in squeezing a “hundred years” into his short life.
She said they had found it impossible to conjure up the words to best describe their one of a kind son. She added that her daughter Aine had “new brothers and sisters” in the loyal friends of her son.
Mourners at the funeral included his wide circle of friends, classmates at Munster Technological Union (MTU) in Cork and colleagues in the Rochestown Park Hotel where he worked part-time as a lifeguard.
Conor was a past pupil of Colaiste an Phiarsaigh and CBC. He also worked part-time at the leisure centre in Rochestown Park Hotel where management said that he was held in the “highest esteem.”