Coroner says ‘warnings need to be heeded’

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An horrific fireball vehicle crash, in which two friends were killed near Kilrea, starkly shows how drink-drive advertising campaign warnings need to be heeded, Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey said on Friday.

An inquest in Antrim heard how Christopher O’Neill and pal Declan McKenna both died after a BMW car collided with a tree and burst into flames on the Agivey Road in the early hours of July 6 last year.

It was described by those who had to recover the bodies of the two young men as one of the most horrific car crashes they had ever attended.

An eye-witness who arrived on the scene a short time after the 3am smash said flames, which rose to 30ft in the air, engulfed the car and also trees.

Both men were single and Christopher O’Neill (22) - who was driving - was two and a half times the legal drink limit.

He lived at Coleraine Street in Kilrea and was a motor mechanic.

Christopher was described as a rising figure in Sinn Fein and chairman of its Kilrea branch.

He stood unsuccessfully for a seat on Coleraine Borough Council in the 2011 local government elections.

His grandfather John Davey, who survived Michael Stone’s attack at Milltown Cemetery in 1988, was a Sinn Fein councillor before he was murdered by loyalists in 1989.

Declan McKenna (23), of Ardbann Avenue in Kilrea, who was the front seat passenger in the car, worked as a plumber.

His uncle, Noel McKenna, was a former SDLP mayor of Derry City.

The car was being driven by Christopher O’Neill, who, the inquest heard, was two-and-a-half times over the legal drink drive limit.

Coroner Mr Leckey said it was likely the effects of drink and the speed of the vehicle - which was travelling at up to 85mph on the 60mph road before it spun onto a layby - contributed to the accident.

Mr Leckey said: “This was a terrible loss to each family and if the question is asked ‘why did this horror happen?’ the answer must inevitably reflect the speed...and the driver should not have been drinking and that he was two and a half times the legal limit.

“If you have alcohol at all in your system you shouldn’t drive.”

Mr Leckey added that perhaps the tragedy shows the message from advertising campaigns not to drink and drive needs to be taken onboard.

He said both men died at the scene of the crash where the car burst into flames shortly before 3am.

Mr Leckey said a forensic report showed the driver lost control on a bend and that the speed was estimated at between 75-85mph.

Mr Leckey said the injuries sustained by both men were very extensive and it would have been “unduly distressing” to the members of each family to read out details at the inquest.