Inquest Ends After Killer Storms In Watford

9 April 2014, 14:46 | Updated: 9 April 2014, 14:53

An inquest into the death of a man who was killed in October's storms in Watford has concluded he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Donal Drohan was driving to work, when a 40ft high Lombardi poplar tree suddenly "snapped" at its trunk and came crashing down on the roof of his vehicle.

An inquest heard today that, at the time of the tragedy, it was not clear who was responsible for maintaining the tree.  As a result, it had not been subjected to regular safety inspections and it was only after it had come down that it was discovered fungal decay was present.

The inquest at Hatfield was told that cctv cameras had caught the moment the tree came crashing down on Mr Drohan's red Peugeot 207 as he drove through Watford on his way to work.

The inquest heard that the 51 year old father of three stood no chance as the massive trunk fell on the car roof, crushing him.

He died almost instantly from traumatic head injuries and a fractured spinal column.

It happened on the morning of October 28 last year - the day St Jude's storm battered Britain with 100mph winds.

Mr Drohan, was on his way to work at Harrow Council early that morning and was driving along Lower High Street in Watford.

The storm, which had been predicted, was at its height.

Without warning, the trunk of the tree, which was near the road, suddenly snapped at a height of 3 - 4 metres from its base and crashed into the road.

The speed of the fall was said to have been just a second, with the tree going from a vertical position to lying horizontally across Mr Drohan's Peugeot.

Tree expert Arthur Clarke, who carried out an investigation, said he found evidence of fungal decay present in the tree, but he told Coroner Edward Thomas that he had often driven past the tree before the tragedy and had never seen any visible signs that it was not healthy.

Asked if the decay could have contributed to a weakness in the tree, he replied "Yes it would."

The inquest was told that as an investigation got underway into the tragedy, it was discovered that there were no records of any inspections being carried out on the tree.

The coroner was told that at the time there was some confusion over who actually owned it and was therefore responsible for its maintenance.

It has since been ascertained that it is owned by and is the responsibility of Hertfordshire County Council.

Mr Drohan was one of four people who died that day as the storm battered the country.

He lived with his wife Geraldine in Weald Lane, Harrow.

That morning, he was on his way to work at the council, where he was an operations manager.

The tragedy happened at around 6.50am as the storm raged across southern Britain.

The inquest heard that no-one actually saw the tree come down, but moments after it had, rescuers tried to lift the trunk, without success.

Shop workers from a nearby Wickes store rushed to Mr Drohan's aid, so too did other motorists who came upon the scene.

A fire crew were able to cut part of the trunk off the car.

Coroner Mr Thomas said "He would have died instantly, I'm sure of that."

PC Rob Jackson said he had viewed cctv footage which caught the moment the tree came down on Mr Drohan's car.

He said seconds before, Mr Drohan had been driving perfectly normally at a speed of around 28mph, with his lights on.

The officer said the footage showed trees and road signs bending in the fierce winds and he said the Lombardi poplar came down "extremely quickly."

He said it had fallen to the ground in about a second.

"He was driving at a perfectly normal speed and this tree went from vertical to horizontal about as quickly as you can imagine" said PC Jackson.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, the coroner said "This was not a situation where the tree was half coming down and he thought I might be able to make it.  This just happened.  This was at a time when the winds were very very strong indeed."

The coroner said the ownership of the tree at the time had not been clear, which meant it was not subject to an inspection regime.

Mr Thomas said whether inspections would have made a difference, he could not say.

The coroner said "I cannot begin to imagine how awful this has been for his family.  The sudden awfulness of this is unimaginable."

Outside the inquest, the family of Mr Drohan declined to make any further comment or say whether they would be taking the matter further in the civil courts.

Following Mr Droha's inquest a spokesman for Hertfordshire County Council said: "This was a tragic accident and we'd like to pass on our sympathies to Mr Drohan's family at this time."