Inquest into Castlewellan farm death

Published Monday, 23 June 2014
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A 10-year-old boy who died in a tragic accident on his family's farm should not legally have been in the digger when it crashed, a court has heard.

Inquest into Castlewellan farm death
Aaron Macaulay who died on a farm in Co Down. (© UTV)

The Coroner's Court, sitting in Newry, heard evidence that the legal age for children to be in agricultural machinery is 13 but as Coroner Jim Kitson commented, "it regularly occurs in farms in this country."

"Whilst it's a practice that should be discouraged the realities of life is that it is a common event," said Mr Kitson adding that he was satisfied Aaron John Macaulay had died as a result of head and neck injuries which he sustained when he was thrown from the cab of a digger which had hurtled down the side of a steep field at his family's farm on the Rathfriland Road, Ballyward, Castlewellan last July.

"It is and will remain a dreadful tragedy for the Macaulay family," said the Coroner and addressing Aaron's parents Maurice and Wendy who held hands and appeared emotional throughout the 90 minute hearing, expressed his "sincere condolences for what is, without a shadow of a doubt, a horrifically tragic set of events that lead to the death of young Aaron."

The court heard that on 30 July last year, Mr Macaulay and his son Matthew had been spreading manure on a field which had a steep incline when tragedy struck.

In his statement Mr Macaulay said he had initially been driving the Caterpillar shovel with Aaron also in the cab but then he swapped vehicles with Matthew so that he could spread manure at the steeper part of the field, believing his sons would be safer towards the bottom, less steep part of the field.

They had been working for around two hours when the shovel came back to the field with more manure, the engine of the digger stalled, leaving the large vehicle with neither steering nor brakes.

His statement recounted how he watched as the digger rolled back down the hill and came to a sudden stop when it collided with a large stone, the force throwing Aaron out through the back window.

"I ran down to the boys. Matthew was out of the shovel and was walking and talking but had a fresh cut to the right side of his head.

"Aaron was lying on his back on the bonnet at the back of the shovel, his feet were still in the cab. He was motionless and I just knew he was dead," said Mr Macaulay in his statement.

He told Coroner Kitson that Aaron enjoyed helping around the farm, helping out from when he was about six, "out milking cows or whatever" and that he had had a previous accident when his arm had been injured but that he was "strong and healthy".

He agreed that his son's death was a "great loss" and after Coroner Kitson said he appreciated that fact and also that "we are quickly approaching the first anniversary of his death", Mr Macaulay was visibly crying as he took his seat beside his wife and son.

Matthew Macaulay, himself an agricultural student, described in his statement how his little brother was sitting on the arm of the driver's seat as there was only one seat and no seatbelts in the shovel.

He said the digger stalled without warning and that he tried to turn the wheel to use the gradient in the field as well as the brakes to stop it from rolling back but added that as both are controlled by hydraulics, with no engine power he could do neither.

"I no longer had control. Aaron and I were being thrown around the cab and I thought it would go through bushes and into another field," said Matthew's statement. Tragically, the digger hit the large stone and came to an abrupt halt, throwing Aaron out of the back.

The court heard that almost immediately, Aaron's sister Helen was on the scene and started CPR in an effort to save her brother, helping the fast response paramedic Stuart Stevenson when he arrived at the scene less than 20 minutes from the first alert.

Mr Stevenson described her efforts as "sterling" and in his statement, recounted how he tasked the PSNI helicopter to help out given the rural setting and the distance to the nearest hospital.

He told Coroner Kitson that neither at the scene nor in the ambulance did Aaron have either a heartbeat or a pulse as he was "in cardiac and respiratory arrest unfortunately."

Airlifted to Craigavon Area Hospital, where a full team of emergency paediatric doctors were waiting, Coroner Kitson read the statement of A&E consultant Dr John O'Hare who said that CPR and other efforts to revive Aaron continued "at all times" but that when "it was obvious the continuation of resuscitation was futile, a joint team decision was taken to cease and Aaron was declared dead at 16:00 on 30 July 2013".

Assistant State Pathologist for NI Dr James Lyness told the court that his autopsy examination of the schoolboy's body revealed a fracture at the base of Aaron's skull where it meets the spinal cord and "would have rendered it susceptible to compression and caused almost total breathing paralysis."

Revealing how there was also bleeding over Aaron's brain which was itself swollen, the pathologist opined "there can be little doubt that the combined effect of the head and neck injuries would have proved rapidly fatal" and agreed with the coroner that it was a "quite devastating injury".

The last witness to give evidence was David Low from the Health and Safety Executive who examined both the scene and the shovel itself.

He told the court that where the shovel initially stalled had gradient between 10 and 20 degrees but as it rolled down the hill, the gradient increased to 35 to 45 degrees, adding that he estimated the shovel had travelled around 110 metres before plunging two metres into a ditch and against the rock.

Mr Low said there was no immediately apparent reason for the vehicle to have stopped so abruptly as the diesel tank was half full and the shovel itself, while old, had been "regularly and well maintained".

He said however that a more detailed examination uncovered minor faults in the fuel pump and fuel lines but added that even with these minor faults, the engine had still been getting fuel.

Mr Low agreed the HSE were aware of the common practice for kids under 13 to be in agricultural vehicles, particularly on family run farms but "we are trying to publicise what the law is in this country and to discourage children from riding in tractors".

"Sadly it's regrettable that it is something that happens on family farms very regularly," said Mr Low.

After Mr Kitson made a finding of Aaron's death being caused by head and neck injuries, his mother Wendy said simply, "Aaron's in heaven, that's the main thing".

A statement from the HSE offered "deepest sympathies" to the Macaulay family and warned: "Their tragic loss underlines that farms can be dangerous places to work and live on, particularly for children.

"No one wants to see accidents like this happen and we would remind farmers that any child under the age of 13 is not permitted to be a passenger in agricultural work vehicles.

"In addition HSENI strongly advises that anyone aged 13 or over should only be carried as a passenger if there is proper sitting with seat belts or restraints fitted."

© UTV News
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