The Death of Helen Phillips

Helen Phillips was killed in a fire in Ballymun Garda Station. Mary Raftery reports.On Monday February 28, at 5.15pm, Helen Phillips was arrested and taken to Ballymun Garda Station. She had been drinking heavily and was allegedly causing a disturbance in the Shopping Centre. She was locked in a cell in the Station, but was not charged with any offence. Two hours later, she was dead, burnt alive in a fire in her cell.

That is all that is known about her death. Everything that occurred during the time she spent in custody remains a mystery. The Gardai's initial contradictory statements have been followed by an implacable refusal to comment.

Helen Phillips was 39 years old. In 1962 she married Michael Phillips, and moved to Granby Row off Parnell Square. Seven years later he died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, leaving Helen with two daughters, Sandra and Jackie, then six and four years old. Over the next eleven years Helen worked as a waitress in several Dublin hotels to support her children. Three years ago her son David was born.

Since she moved into Ballymun ten years ago, she had been drinking sporadically. Her family say that she was not an alcoholic, that she would drink heavily for a few days and would then stay off it for long periods. In theearly summer of 1982, her son David was taken from her and put into care in Madonna House in Stillorgan. Helen was told the following October that if she stayed off the drink for three months, David might allowed to stay with her at weekends. During that summer Helen was drinking heavily. But in October she gave it up, lapsed for a few days before Christmas (when she was informed that David would not be allowed to spend Christmas with her), but since that time, and up to the weekend before her death, she hadn't been drinking.

On the Friday before her death, David's father, from whom she thought she had managed to break free, called to the flat. This, combined with the fact that she had been told some weeks beforehand that there was a possibility that David would be fostered out with another family, caused her considerable distress, and she started drinking.

On the day of her death, she left the flat with her daughter Jackie at 2pm to visit the Eastern Health Board Clinic beside the Ballymun Shopping Centre. She had been drinking that morning, and she remained in the clinic, where she spoke with the doctor, psychiatrist and welfare officer, until 4.15pm. She then met a friend in the Shopping Centre, and Jackie decided to leave and wait for her at home.

Helen Phillips later went into Quinnsworth where she bought a naggon of vodka, which she was drinking when she was arrested for causing a disturbance in the Shopping Centre at 5.15. Initial reports stated that she had been allowed to keep the vodka in the cell with her, but the gardai later denied this, saying that it had been taken from her.

The gardai in Ballymun stated that they had checked to see if she was all right at 7.15pm and at 7.30 smoke was noticed coming from the window of her cell. An eye-witness, however, claimed that he saw smoke coming from the garda station windows at about 6.40pm, that the Fire Brigade arrived shortly before seven o'clock, and that Helen Phillips was brought out on a stretcher, completely covered by a blanket, and placed in the waiting ambulance at around 7.15pm. She was declared dead on admission to the Richmond Hospital.
On Tuesday March 1, a Garda spokesman stated that they were satisfied that all regulations governing detention in Garda stations had been adhered to. These regulations include the strict searching of prisoners, the removal of anything with which they may harm themselves, and regular checks every fifteen minutes on those who may be intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated. The same day, a Ballymun garda was reported as saying that Helen Phillips had not been searched as there was no ban-garda present. It emerged that she had been locked in her cell with a box of matches in her possession. There is no ban-garda attached to Ballymun station. The nearest station with a ban-garda is in Whitehall, five minutes away. Helen Phillips had been in custody for over an hour before the fire broke out.

As soon as the fire was discovered, the gardai on duty attempted to rescue Mrs Phillips but were driven back by toxic fumes and black, acrid smoke from the burning mattress in the cell; firemen using breathing apparatus eventually retrieved the badly-burned body. The mattresses used in. Garda stations are made of polyurethene foam covered with proban cotton, a specially treated fire-retardant material, according to a spokesman from the Office of Public Works, who are responsible for the supply and replacement of prison and Garda station furniture. He added that prior to their installation, the mattresses would have been tested by the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards for fire resistance.

The Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan, in response to Parliamentary Questions both before the death of Helen Phillips and on the following day, stated: "My Department have been seeking specifications for safer mattresses and after long prolonged tests by the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards specifications were prepared and the contracts placed. The mattresses are now being delivered and that applies to cells in Garda stations and prisons."

The Office of Public Works confirm that they are in the course of replacing prison mattresses, although they are only at the stage of inviting tenders for the new mattresses and none has as yet been delivered. They say that they have not been requested to replace those in Garda stations, but that they understand that the Gardai have themselves in the last few weeks placed an order for some new mattresses. They do not know why the order did not go through the normal OPW channels, or why no tenders were invited (the usual procedure if a large quantity is involved), nor do they know how many mattresses have been ordered, or in what way they differ from the existing ones.

The Garda Press Office refused to comment on any of these points. However, phone calls to individual garda stations in Dublin revealed that none had received new mattresses in the last few months nor had they been informed that they were being replaced. A garda in Kevin Street station in fact mentioned that they were in urgent need of non-flammable mattresses as some of the existing ones had been burned.

As regards Mr Noonan's statement on the specifications for new mattresses, a spokesman for the Institute of Industrial Research and Standards said that they regularly test furniture sent to them by the OPW. They have not, however, been asked by the Department of Justice or anyone else to draw up specifications for the safety of prison furniture, and they have never done so. The Department of Justice refused to comment on this matter, saying that it was a matter for the Gardai.

Two conferences on the use of flammable materials in public places held in Dublin during the last six months have drawn attention to the fact that Ireland has no safety standards for prison furniture. The British standard - the Department of Environment Property Services Agency 15 (DOE PSA 15) - stipulates that the interior of the mattresses used in cells must be non-flammable, and the covering must be vandal proof. Proban cotton is not vandal-proof, and the mattress used in Ballymun Garda station was highly flammable.

The Phillips family are baffled as to why the gardai did not send someone across the road - a three-minute walk - to Pearse Tower to ask Jackie to take her mother home. They knew where she lived, and they were well acquainted with her circumstances. Alternatively, someone from the Clinic could have been asked to take her home.

Helen Phillips' family are disturbed that no explanation has been offered to them of what happened in the station on the night of Monday February 28. They realise that they may never know unless the gardai choose to make public the findings of their internal inquiry. They are hoping that those findings will be announced at the inquest on Helen Phillips' death, the date of which has not yet been fixed.