Inquest | 

Tragic lifeguard Conor King was joking with friends before vanishing into 50ft blowhole

Conor (22) who tripped and fell 20 metres down onto rocks while camping with friends died instantly

Ralph Riegel

A student who tripped and fell 20 metres (60 feet) down onto rocks in a clifftop blowhole while camping with friends died instantly from catastrophic head injuries.

The revelation came as moving tributes were paid to student and lifeguard Conor King (22) at a Cork coroner's inquest.

Mr King died on April 24 last after a freak accident outside Garretstown, near the Old Head of Kinsale, where he was camping with 13 college friends.

His friend, Gary Barrett, was hailed as a hero for swimming out to sea so he could access the seaward entrance to the blowhole - and then desperately trying to revive his friend in the pitch black interior of the sea cavern.

Mr Barrett also had to hold his friend above the incoming tide and waves for almost an hour and had to be hospitalised for hypothermia once both young men were winched from the blowhole.

When rescuers arrived and accessed the deep blowhole, Mr King's friend was so determined to help him he was even reluctant to let him go.

Coast Guard volunteer, Eamon Barry, said that in all his years working with the rescue services he had never seen such a display of true courage.

"The efforts of Conor's friend that night were truly heroic. His (Gary's) bravery was truly amazing."

Other friends braved the steep sides of the blowhole in a desperate bid to use their mobile phones as torches to aid Gary after his freak fall and to assist the rescue effort.

The inquest was told a group of 13 friends had travelled to Garretstown on April 24 for an overnight camping trip.

A number of the young men had brought beer to the campsite which was set up about seven to ten metres from the blowhole entrance.

Conor King had been surfing but then joined his friends at the campsite where they consumed some beer by a camp fire and played music.

Shortly after 11pm, some horseplay erupted and a number of young men began to jokingly wrestle each other.

Several witnesses told the inquest that, during a lull in the horseplay, Conor King had stood up, stepped back in the darkness and said: "Who's next?"

When he took another step back, he vanished into the blowhole in the pitch dark.

Several of his friends said it was clear Conor did not realise he was so close to the entrance to the sea cave.

Inspector Ian O'Callaghan described the freak accident as "every parent's worst nightmare" while South Cork Coroner Frank O'Connell issued a special safety warning.

Mr O'Connell said he would be raising the issue of safety fencing around the blowhole after being told there was evidence of old camp fires in the area surrounding it.

The coroner said this was an issue of major concern given the enormous popularity of Garretstown as a summer destination.

Mr O'Connell also hailed the courage and skill of the rescue services on the night including the Coast Guard, paramedics and Gardaí.

He returned a verdict of accidental death.

Mr King's heartbroken parents, Eamon and Maura King, in an emotional statement to the inquest, thanked Conor's friends for all they had done for him that night - and urged them to live their lives.

"I am so sorry this happened to all of you," Mrs King said.

She said the family were deeply grateful for all the young men had tried to do to save their son - and especially the remarkable heroism shown by Gary Barrett.

"You have to live your lives. You have to cherish the lives you have."

Mr King said he drew some comfort from the fact he son spent his last moments with the friends he so cherished and was having fun.

"Look after yourselves," he said.

One friend, Ronan Keogh, told the inquest how when he realised Conor had fallen backwards into the blowhole entrance, he immediately feared the worst.

"I feared that he was dead or badly mangled."

Gary Barrett was not at the campsite at the time as he was talking to his girlfriend on the phone and was preparing to leave.

When he heard shouting shortly after 11pm he realised something was wrong.

After being informed that his friend had fallen into the blowhole, the trained lifeguard ran into the sea to swim to gain access to the blowhole from the seaward side.

In the pitch black of the cavern interior, he had to use his sense of touch to locate his friend - and when he found him realised he had no pulse.

Mr Barrett performed CPR for over 40 minutes until he was too exhausted to continue - but still desperately held his friend's head above the incoming tide and waves.

Coast Guard officials and a rescue doctor gained access to the cavern by special climbing winches and realised the young man was visibly shaking from hypothermia but still held onto Conor King.

Rescue officials had to race the incoming tide to get everyone out of the cavern before it flooded.

Mr Barry said he had major safety concerns given the speed with which the tide was racing into the cavern.

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster said Mr King died from poly-trauma injuries consistent with a fall from a height including a serious skull fracture and brain injury as well as trauma to his chest and abdomen.

His blood alcohol level was 191mg/litre which was equivalent to the consumption of six or seven pints.

She said his death would have been almost instantaneous given the scale of the injuries he suffered in the fall from an estimated 20 metres (60 feet).

Mr King's funeral took place last year on what would have been his 23rd birthday.

The young man is survived by his heartbroken parents Eamon and Maura, his sister, Áine, as well as grandparents, uncles and aunts.

His family said they are now fundraising in their son's memory for the emergency services.

Mr King was a trained lifeguard and a third year student at Munster Technology University (MTU).

He lived in Douglas but had attended secondary school in Glanmire and Christian Brothers College before going to MTU. A keen sportsman, he was working over recent times in the leisure centre of the Rochestown Park Hotel.

MTU President Professor Maggie Cusack said Conor "made a lasting impression on all who knew him and will be sadly missed."

He was a year three student on the BEng in Biomedical Engineering programme in MTU and whose final year project was centred on a prosthetic device for children which could be adjusted as the child grew.

"Outside of MTU, Conor had a keen interest in rugby and had a passion for water sports and water safety," she said. "Conor was a dedicated student who was very popular amongst his wider class group and was well liked by all staff in MTU with whom he interacted."

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