The deaths of three young men in a catastrophic car crash has not just devastated their families, but has “robbed society” at large of their talents.
That was the view of coroner Suzanne Anderson after she delivered her findings at an inquest into the accident which claimed the lives of Co Down trio Conall Havern, 20, Peter Michael Hughes, 19, and Gavin Patrick Sloan, 20.
The students died after the red Vauxhall Corsa vehicle in which they were travelling collided with a black Volkswagen Tiguan on the A1 dual carriageway on August 23 last year.
The vehicle, driven by Mr Hughes, had veered out of control while heading south towards Newry amid an intense rain storm some time after 5.30pm.
The coroner’s court yesterday heard from a succession of witnesses about the road conditions that day.
They described seeing a pool of water – estimated by one of them to have been perhaps three inches deep – on a stretch of carriageway between Dromore and Banbridge.
One witness told the court that once the Corsa hit this patch of water, it shot off “like a pinball”.
It careered across the central reservation, where it then collided with a car travelling northwards.
The three men (all born in Newry) were enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast.
Mr Havern and Mr Hughes had both been studying chemical engineering, while Mr Sloan was studying law and politics.
At the end of yesterday’s hearing, coroner Ms Breen said: “I just want to close by saying that this devastating accident has robbed three families of three much-loved sons.”
In addition to that it had also “robbed society of three fine young men” who, she said, had all looked set to enjoy bright futures.
It emerged on Wednesday that among the first people on the scene of the crash were two off-duty police officers, travelling separately.
The first of them to give evidence was Constable Sarah McDonnell.
She was one of three witnesses to describe the rainfall that day as “torrential”.
It had been “literally bouncing off the road,” she said, adding that she was wearing pumps and that at one point the water was so deep it covered her foot.
Fellow off-duty officer Detective Constable Sarah Lewis also happened upon the scene.
While running across the central reservation to the scene of the crash, she said the grass was “just squelching underneath your feet – it had just turned to mud”.
Like Constable McDonnell, she too tried to assess and aid the crash victims.
The court heard that the female driver of the other car – the Volkswagen Tiguan – was hurt, but alive.
DC Lewis said the two men in the front of the Corsa – Mr Havern and Mr Hughes – seemed dead, but she believed she could detect a faint pulse in rear passenger Mr Sloan.
However, when she checked again seconds later, she felt nothing.
One of those who had directly witnessed the crash, Nicola Wilson, said she had seen the red Corsa overtaking the car she was travelling in.
She said that soon afterwards it hit a patch of water in the outside lane, close to the Mount Ida Road junction.
“It veered one way and then the other,” she said in her statement.
“It was like a pinball in a pinball machine. It just aquaplaned into the grass verge.”
Brian Thornton, another witness, had passed the spot shortly before, and had moved towards the left lane to avoid the patch of water.
While one witness had guessed the Corsa could have been travelling at little more than 45mph, Mr Thornton estimated its speed to be possibly up to 65mph.
Eyewitness Michael Cooper described seeing the Corsa hit the water too, which he said was deep enough to have ripples on its surface.
Forensic expert Gavin Dunn also gave testimony, but despite being pressed by Michael McVerry – a lawyer acting for the Hughes family – he offered no definitive view about what the exact cause of the accident had been.
The coroner said in her findings that the heavy rainfall had resulted in an area of water on the road, and that when the car reached this point, Mr Hughes had “lost control”.
Post-mortem details revealed a huge catalogue of major injuries suffered by those in the car, with the pathologist finding that each would have faced a “very rapid death”.
Family members for the three victims – all living in the south Down area – took to the stand to confirm their details.
While doing so, the court had heard from Liam Sloan, father of Gavin, who said the accident had affected his entire family, and that “we will never be the same again”.