A verdict of accidental death due to massive trauma as the result of an air accident was the decision of the jury at an inquest in Tullamore on Friday into the deaths of pilot Niall Bowditch and seven-year-old passenger Kacper Kacprzak at Clonbullogue, Co Offaly on May 13 2018.
The inquest heard that both victims of the accident suffered severe head trauma and multiple fractures to their upper and lower limbs.
The airplane was discovered embedded in a bog near Walsh Island in east Offaly after it crashed while returning from a parachute jump. It had “virtually nose dived into the ground” and had been “flying vertically like a torpedo” according to one witness.
Coroner Raymond Mahon told the inquest that questions about responsibility for operating the flight and the legality of carrying a passenger were “another matter entirely” and the inquest was not the appropriate forum for such a discussion.
Witness Jimmy Slattery told of how he was out walking his dog when he saw the plane take off, later he saw the plane again when he heard the “roar” of its engine and he knew it was in the wrong place as he regularly saw planes take off and land at the parachute club.
The plane “virtually nose dived into the ground” he said. It had been “flying vertically like a torpedo into the ground.” Mr Slattery saw the plane “fly straight into the trees” and then he heard “a hollow thump”.
He ran to the road where he met cyclist Ger O’Rourke and his wife who called 999 as he was “all thumbs”.
“There was no smoke, no fire, no explosion, just silence.”
Mr O’Rourke told of how he and his wife Elizabeth Crowley met Mr Slattery. They had been out cycling and noticed a plane flying low “on its side”. A car went by so he looked away and when he looked back the plane was gone.
After his wife called the emergency services they waited 15 minutes until the fire brigade arrived and then they went home.
Irish Parachute Club instructor Caroline Cassidy told the inquest that she had not known that Kacper was on the flight. Her own daughter had gone up in the plane with the pilot the previous week.
She had noticed the plane in a nose dive but that was not unusual when descending, “sometimes they come down just a little bit faster”. Her role was to ensure the jumpers landed safely and after she had done that she got the call that the plane was missing.
The pilot, who was nicknamed Billy, had been in “great spirits” when she spoke to him prior to the flight. When asked by David Richardson BL (who was representing the family of Kacper at the inquest) if it was her role to see who got onto the plane, she said the pilot was in command and made that decision. Ms Cassidy said she did not know how Kacper got on board - “that’s down to the pilot,” but she did say that the boy should not have been in that area.
She had witnessed many children on flights that land at the parachute club’s airstrip, she said. When her 17 year old daughter had gone on the flight the previous week, Ms Cassidy had notified the manifest, but said that she did not control it. “It was Billy who asked her if she wanted to go.”
Victor Clarke, legal representative for the Irish Parachute Club, asked her to clarify that it was down to the pilot who was allowed on the aircraft. Ms Cassidy said her responsibility was the movement of the jumpers.
Kevin Brerton, a senior pilot with the Irish Parachute Club told the inquest that on the day of the accident he was on duty for air traffic control. The pilot had been cleared to land in their last communication, when there was subsequently no response from the pilot he became concerned and went up in another plan to carry out a search.
In the meantime he had contacted the national Air Traffic Control to inform them that there was a plane missing.
On spotting the wreckage “deep in the forest” he called for a lower flying helicopter to hover over the position so emergency services could find their way to the site.
Mr Brerton said he had not been aware that there was a boy on board. As a pilot he had on a number of occasions taken passengers on flights with him but they were usually “would-be pilots” or a parachute instructor. He had on one occasion brought his own son with him, but “never a small child.”
Parachutist Padraig Duffy told the inquest that the first he became aware of Kacper’s presence on the flight was two minutes before jumping when he looked into the cockpit and saw the boy sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He had been sitting directly behind the boy and was the last person to jump.
When he jumped and looked back up at the bottom of the plane, he said he could not see anything wrong with the aircraft. When he got back to the parachute club after the jump he noticed that the plane had not returned and was missing.
Fire officer Gabriel Conlon described how a passer-by directed the emergency services to the scene where they met with members of the Irish Parachute Club who offered to assist with the search. He gave them a fire service radio and he contacted the Coast Guard to seek assistance from the air in the search.
A Helimed helicopter relayed the location of the wreckage and the Coast Guard helicopter hovered over the site to guide them to it. The plane was embedded in the bog so trees had to be cut back to allow a digger on site to dig around the plane.
The tail section was freed first, then the middle section, then a propellor and the engine compartment. Eventually the cockpit was found at a depth of 10 feet, he said. Both bodies were found in their seats, face down.
The cockpit was lifted out and both bodies had to be cut from the wreckage with the remains being brought to Tullamore hospital.
Garda Sgt John Doran then gave evidence of how both bodies were identified through DNA evidence.
John Owens, of the Air Accident Investigation Unit gave detailed evidence of his findings which he said were technical in nature and were in “no way” an attempt to apportion blame. The unit’s investigation into the accident had already been published, he said and a number of recommendations from it were being implemented, he told the inquest.
A number of factors had yet to be determined, he said, such as who was the operator of the flight and the legality of carrying passengers, issues that coroner Ray Mahon said were not relevant to the inquest.
Pathologist Dr Narul Nor, who performed the autopsies, told the inquest that the pilot Mr Bowditch had suffered such severe head trauma that his head was almost decapitated. His neck had been crushed, his chest deflated and he suffered fractures to numerous upper and lower limbs. The toxicology report for the pilot was negative for drugs and alcohol.
Death was due to massive trauma was a result of an air accident.
The parents of Kacper left the inquest while Dr Nor described the boy’s injuries. The body had been covered in peat and kerosene and he had suffered extreme trauma to the head, upper and lower limbs. The head injuries were so severe that his head had been crushed as had his neck.
Death was due to massive trauma, especially to the head, he said. When asked if death would have been instantaneous, he said yes.
In his conclusion coroner Mr Mahon said that a day of enjoyment had been shattered with awful consequences. He offered the jury two possible verdicts – death by misadventure, but he did not think that would be suitable. There was no evidence that Mr Bowditch had deliberately done anything to cause the accident, he said.
What had happened had been “totally accidental” and the cause of death was due to massive generalised trauma especially to the head in the case of Kacper and massive generalised trauma in the case of Mr Bowditch.
The jury adjourned briefly and they returned with a verdict of accidental death due to massive generalised trauma for both of the deceased. The chairperson extended thanks to all the emergency services and offered sincere condolence to both families.
Mr Mahon also offered his deepest sympathy and addressed the parents of Kacper saying that to lose a child at seven years of age must be a dreadful experience. Condolences were also expressed by the gardaí, Mr Owens of the AAIU, the legal representative for the Irish Parachute Club, Mr Richardson representing the family and Mr Conlon of the fire services.
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