A popular Kerry bathing spot should have between five and six lifeguards on duty when the beach is busy and swimmers warned about the dangers of riptides, an inquest into the death of two siblings has heard.
The cause of death of 51-year-old Desmond Byrne of Carrigeen More, Le Carrow, Roscommon, and his 62-year-old sister, Murial Ericsson, of Malmo, Sweden, at the Men’s Beach, Ballybunion on August 4 last year was "accidental drowning".
The inquest in Listowel Co Kerry heard from 17 witnesses including holidaymakers and lifeguards who were on the beach at the time, as well as from the partner of the late Mr Byrne.
Josh Byrne, 13, the son of Desmond Byrne, who has special needs, was also in the water at the time but managed to get ashore safely.
Coroner Helen Lucey said it was “nothing short of a miracle that Josh is alive today”.
On the evening of the tragedy four lifeguards were on duty when normally there would be five or six, the inquest heard.
Ms Lucey brought in two recommendations with her verdict of death due to misadventure: that a minimum of five or six lifeguards should be on duty on the Men’s and Ladies’ beaches in Ballybunion during high season. She also said the lifeguards should issue an oral warning when something like a rip current is present.
The coroner paid particular tribute to 15-year-old Ruairí Walsh of Carrigrohane, Cork, who was on holiday at the time with his parents in their mobile home. He was on his surf board just before 6pm on the Thursday evening and showed ‘sensitivity beyond his years’ when the tragedy happened.
Ruairí saw Josh in difficulty and kept him under observation and watched him get out of the water safely. He was then alerted by a scream from the shore and he saw a man, Desmond Byrne, face down in the water. He waved his surfboard over his head to get a lifeguard’s attention. He also gave the arm lift sign to bring first aid.
The inquest heard how lifeguards became concerned there might be a second person missing after establishing that Josh Byrne was the dead man’s son and seeing three pairs of shoes, and finding a lady’s clothes and watch in a bag.
The lifeboat was launched and Garda Omar Fitzell, who is also a member of the Ballybunion Sea Cliff and Rescue, told of finding a female ‘face down and partially submerged’. This was around 100m from the water line.
Extensive CPR was carried out on the bodies of Mr Byrne and Ms Ericsson by medics including by Dr Moira Fitzpatrick who was on the beach. The medevac helicopter also arrived but there was no sign of life.
Water safety instructor Leo Hillianrd explained that a rip current is something that can occur at any time and for any duration and is "like a river in the water". Rip tides pull people out from shore, the inquest also heard.
Head lifeguard Dominic Horgan, from Tralee, said the lifeguards had been keeping the crowd back from the middle section between the two beaches where there was a severe rip current.
The rip current had been very bad "and that was our main priority all summer," Mr Horgan said in his deposition. There had been two lifeguards on each beach, and there were flags to indicate where to swim, he replied to questions from Ms Lucey. The lifeguards were blowing whistles to keep people away from the rip current.
Lifeguard Noah Edwards, of Tralee, said Mr Horgan had also been in the water informing people about the rip currents. The lifeguards would move between the two beaches. Mr Edwards also said that at the time they were ‘down to four’ lifeguards - normally it was five or six.
Paulette Daly, partner of the late Desmond Byrne in her deposition read for her by Insp O’Keeffe said "Muriel was home from Sweden and staying with them in Roscommon. On the morning of Thursday August 4 she was getting ready for work and the three of them - Dessie, Muriel and Josh - headed off in their camper van. They stopped at Bunratty and spoke to her of maybe going to Kerry. There was no more contact until Garda Máiréad Taheny arrived at her door in Roscommon."
On hearing the news she said: "I couldn’t believe it. Our hearts are broken.” She drove to Tralee and identified the bodies.
Pathologist Professor Nollaig Parfrey carried out the post mortems and said there was no evidence of disease, no ethanol and no drugs.
Coroner Helen Lucey extended her sympathy to Paulette Daly and Mr Bryne’s siblings and extended family. Ms Ericsson’s husband had since passed away in Sweden, the coroner noted.
These were healthy people as detailed in the post mortem report “and this is a tragic accident," the coroner said.
"There was a cloud over Ballybunion because of this incident," Ms Lucey also said.
Dean Byrne, son of the late Desmond Byrne, enquired about the number of lifeguards and their position on either beach at the time of the drownings. The question was allowed and one of the lifeguards was recalled briefly. Ms Lucey explained how the evidence was that there was one lifeguard in the elevated hut and one on the beach in both the Ladies and Men’s beaches. When the tide was out a person can walk between the two beaches, the inquest heard. The lifeguards would be in contact about rip currents.