A fishing trip turned to tragedy when two English soldiers were killed in a road crash with a tractor in Northern Ireland, an inquest has heard.
Lance Corporal David Gwilt, from Bedford, and Rifleman Dale Harris, from Barnsley, died when their car failed to stop at a junction in Co Antrim and ploughed into a tractor driving on a main road, Belfast Coroner’s Court was told.
The 24-year-olds had been serving in the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, based at Thiepval barracks, Lisburn. One of their colleagues - Rifleman Matthew Robins - managed to escape major injury in the collision on the Ballyconnelly Road near Cullybackey last August.
As relatives of the dead soldiers watched from the public gallery of the court, coroner John Leckey heard Mr Robins describe how the three had left Thiepval that morning with a plan to spend some time off fishing.
They had gone to shops in Lisburn to buy fishing gear, fishing licences, food and a tent. Mr Robins sat in the witness box as his statement outlining the events of the day was read to court.
He said the three friends had stopped at two lakes and were on the way to find another spot to fish when the accident happened. The soldier said he recalled being in the front passenger seat of the car as they drove along, but had no memory of the crash that followed.
“The next thing I remember I was in the ambulance and a paramedic was on the phone to my missus,” he said.
Mr Robins, also from England, later told Mr Leckey that none of the men were familiar with the roads in that part of Co Antrim.
Jordan Marks was driving the tractor and trailer along the Ballyconnelly Road at around 8pm when the silver Fiat Punto owned and driven by Mr Gwilt emerged from a junction.
“I just got a sight of a car flying out of the junction,” he said.
The vehicle collided with the front of the tractor and spun around before crashing into a road sign.
Retired doctor David Allen and off-duty nurses Rosaleen McLaughlin and Emma Donnelly were among the first to come upon the scene of the crash.
Despite their efforts, the two soldiers were declared dead at the site. Mr Gwilt was in the driver’s seat and Mr Harris was in the back passenger seat behind him.
Mr Leckey noted how unlikely it was that three trained medics were in the close vicinity at the time.
“It is quite remarkable that so soon after an accident has just happened a doctor and two nurses were so quickly on the scene,” he said.
“I’m sure the fact a doctor and two nurses were there so quickly must give comfort to the families. I would like to thank all of them for what they did at the scene. It must have been a very traumatic experience.”
Road traffic collision investigator Gavin Dunn, from Forensic Science Northern Ireland, said the junction at the approach to the Ballyconnelly Road was clearly marked with signs and road markings.
“The Fiat was required to stop by the road markings and signage,” he said.
Mr Dunn said it was not possible to determine the exact speed the soldiers’ car was travelling at, but added: “It was not moving at a relatively slow speed.”
Assessing the conclusions of the expert’s report, Mr Leckey said: “The bottom line is the car failed to stop at the junction and very tragically that led to a collision with the tractor and the deaths of the driver and passenger.”
A police sergeant told the coroner there had been a “collision history” at the junction and explained there was another side road directly opposite the road the soldiers were travelled on - giving the impression of one continuing road.
“If you weren’t paying close attention you might miss the junction completely,” he said.
The coroner heard that Transport NI has agreed to introduce additional safety measures at the junction - such as ‘rumble strip’ road paint to give drivers further warning to slow down and high visibility bordering around the stop signs.
Mr Leckey welcomed the steps.
“I always hope something will arise out of a tragedy that will improve matters and may prevent the occurrence of something similar,” he said.
Recording the deaths as being the result of a road crash, the coroner extended his sympathies to the relatives of the two soldiers and again commended all those who had attempted to save them.