A coroner has made a plea for caution among young motorists as an inquest revealed harrowing details of an accident which cost the lives of two teenage farming enthusiasts.
The coroner’s court hearing on Tuesday was told that the driver, Andrew Gass, had obtained his licence just 12 days before the fatal one-car collision occurred – something which claimed his own life and that of childhood friend Mark Hutcheson.
Both of them were aged 17, were apprentice welders, and were members of Mountnorris Young Farmers’ Club.
Poignant descriptions of the tragic young students’ lives were read out to the court, as well as snapshots of what life is like for the bereaved families in the wake of the catastrophe.
The court was told that weather conditions on the morning of January 21 this year had been foggy.
An expert witness also testified that R-plate driver Andrew was likely to have been travelling faster than the 45mph maximum allowable speed when his black Vauxhall Astra lost control as it rounded a right-hand bend on the Cladymilltown Road near Markethill, Co Armagh.
Whilst the crash utterly destroyed the front of the car, killing he occupants of the first two seats, the coroner likened it to “a miracle” that a teenage passenger in the back of the car escaped without major injury.
At the outset, coroner Patrick McGurgan said it was important “everyone in court here today understands we’re not here to attribute blame – no-one is on trial”.
And at its conclusion, he said that he only wished other drivers could have been present in court to listen to the evidence, and that all young drivers should heed the message that “speed kills, inattention kills”.
First to give evidence at Armagh Courthouse on Tuesday morning was Heather Gass, mother of Andrew.
He had lived between the Co Armagh villages of Mountnorris and Markethill – on the very same road as Mark, who was his friend since boyhood.
Andrew had three siblings, and was studying welding and fabrication at Armagh tech (the same course as Mark).
“He enjoyed tech because he felt he was treated like an adult,” she said in a statement read out to the court.
“I don’t think he’d missed a day since he started.”
He had worked for a local engineering business, and his mother believes he had intended to stay there once his course was finished.
But she added: “Andrew loved to farm. His favourite thing to do was to drive tractors.”
He was also a member of Tullyvallen FC, had been a involved the Boys’ Brigade and Youth Fellowship from a young age, and “had hundreds of friends – his phone contact list was full to bursting”.
She told the inquest that he was a very “tactile” boy, who would readily cuddle her and his aunt, and was “the life and soul of his house”.
When he left the house that morning, she had shouted out to him: “Take care!”
When she was told later that day that he was dead, she said: “My world fell apart... I could not think straight.”
Next on the stand was Ruth Hutcheson, mother of Mark.
“From a very young age, about four, he helped his father on the farm,” she said.
She believes that he would have taken it over eventually.
She said: “On hearing Mark was dead, I felt total devastation. Coping has been hard for us all; I’m not back at work yet.
“Our lives have been changed forever.”
Also taking the stand was Thomas ‘TJ’ McCormack, 17.
He was on the same course as the other boys, and was a rear passenger in the car.
He described how they had all been heading to Portadown tech for the day for a skills competition, where Armagh tech and Portadown were competing “to see who’s engineers were better”.
Although he could not see the reading on the speedometer, he estimated that prior to the crash – which happened at roughly 8.30am – the car had been going at up to 70mph.
He said that Andrew had been talking with Mark about a particular field, and had looked over to the left.
He said the car then veered into the bank.
Andrew tried to correct it.
However, the vehicle lost control; the brakes seemed to seize up, and the tyres squealed.
TJ closed his eyes as he saw the car heading towards a tree.
When he opened his eyes again in the aftermath of the impact, he could see seats and the roof.
He called: ‘Lads, are youse ok?’ But there was no reply.
Suffering from cuts, he climbed out of the back window.
He phoned the emergency services for help.
However, asked about whether he thought the other boys were still alive, he said on Tuesday that he believed them to have been dead.
No-one at the scene was able to get clear access inside the vehicle in the immediate aftermath.
When examined by a doctor about an hour later, both the two boys in the front seats were pronounced dead.
The coroner (and Mrs Hutcheson) praised TJ, saying he had managed to do “all the right things” when the accident happened.
Sgt Simon Burrell of the Roads Policing Unit (RPU) also gave evidence.
A veteran of the police with 24 years’ service, 11 of them in the RPU, he was asked if it was one of the most extreme examples of a car wreck he had ever seen – to which he replied that it was “up there” among the worst.
All occupants were wearing seatbelts.
There was no alcohol or medication in Andrew’s system, there was no evidence that he had used a phone before the crash, and his car was in good order.
Forensic scientist Damien Coll told the hearing that at the time the vehicle lost control it was probably travelling at around 50 to 53mph.
By the time it hit the tree, he estimated its speed to be about 25 to 35mph.
The car struck it on the front passenger side, and the force of the impact onto he narrow trunk caused the car to “roll” upwards onto the tree, crushing the front of the roof – a manoeuvre he said was “not that common”.
He said that he had tested the stretch of road himself, and said it should have been possible to take the bend at an even higher speed than 45mph and have “no difficulty”.
He pointed out that if someone took their eyes off the road it would have a negative impact on their ability to hold the corner.
“It doesn’t have to be a long period of time,” he said. “Half a second or so.”
The court found that both of the fatal teenagers had suffered major head injuries upon impact.
Delivering his findings, the coroner said that “all drivers, but in particular young drivers, need to understand speed kills, inattention kills”.
He hoped as a result of airing the evidence in court, “young drivers will read about this tragedy and be extra careful”.
Ruth Hutcheson said what she wanted to come out of the hearing was simply “learning”.
After the case, she said: “The families have been through a traumatic 10 months. Mark will always be in our thoughts.
“To help us move forward, our mission is to raise road safety.”
This Saturday, Mountnorris Young Farmers’ club is organising a memorial tractor run in honour of the tragic teenagers.
Registration will be at 11.30am at Mountnorris Presbyterian Church Hall. For more information contact club leader George Porter on 07907589766.