Page last updated at 18:54 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 19:54 UK

Girl's 'frantic' call from blaze

The family of seven died in the fire
The family of seven died in the fire

An inquest into the deaths of a family of seven in a fire in Omagh has heard a distressing phone call made by a teenage girl from her burning home.

It was made by Caroline, 13, daughter of Lorraine McGovern, who could be heard pleading: "Help me! Help me!"

Much of the remainder of the call is too graphic to report. At one point she cries: "He's... He's..."

Lorraine McGovern, Arthur McElhill and their five children died in the fire at Lammy Crescent, Omagh, two years ago.

Mr McElhill, who had convictions for sexually assaulting teenage girls, was suspected of starting the fire.

(Arthur McElhill) stared at me for three or four seconds with no response - no shouting or screaming - then he just turned back in
Mark McGlinn

At the inquest in Omagh on Tuesday, relatives of both adults heard harrowing details about how they and their five children died.

They heard that they were all alive when the fire started and they had to be identified using dental records.

Members of the McElhill and McGovern families sat opposite each other at the inquest.

Some wept silently while others closed their eyes as details about the deaths of the two adults and their five children - Caroline, 13; Sean, 7; Bellina, 4; Clodagh, 19 months and James, nine months, were read out.

Broken window

There was no evidence of sexual or physical assault prior to the deaths. Nor was there any evidence that Mr McElhill had been under the influence of drink or common drugs on the night of the fire in November 2007.

Lorraine McGovern's parents Kevin and Theresa leaving the inquest in Omagh
Lorraine McGovern's parents Kevin and Theresa leaving the inquest in Omagh

The hearing, at Omagh courthouse, is expected to last up to a week.

Mark and John McGlinn, two brothers who were among the first at the scene, described seeing Arthur McElhill at the broken window of an upstairs room.

Mark McGlinn, whose family has a window cleaning business, placed one of his ladders on the windowsill and urged him to either climb down or pass someone else out.

But he said he made no effort to get out and instead turned back into the fire.

"He stared at me for three or four seconds with no response - no shouting or screaming," said Mr McGlinn.

"Then he just turned back in."

He said he was sure Mr McElhill could have got out through the window.

His comments were echoed by his brother John, who was watching from the roadside.

"He moved away from the window back into the house towards the fire," he told the court.

'Contrary assessment'

A lawyer for Mr McElhill's relatives, Sean Doherty, queried this recollection and noted that John McGlinn had not mentioned him walking away from the window in his original police statement.

An apparently contrary assessment of Mr McElhill's behaviour was provided earlier by another neighbour.

Stephen Mullan, who was on the scene before the McGlinn brothers arrived, said he heard both Arthur McElhill and Lorraine McGovern screaming for help.

Charlie McElhill
Arthur McElhill's father Charlie was at Omagh courthouse

He said Mr McElhill had broken the bedroom window to try to get out.

"He was holding his face with his hand and was thumping the glass with his fist and was shouting 'help us'," said Mr Mullan.

He told the coroner it was his impression that Mr McElhill was trying to get out.

The inquest also heard from two forensics experts, who agreed that an accelerant had been poured in the hall and lit from inside the house.

One of the men, Dennis McAuley, said a mixture of petrol and white spirits had been used.

"It was carried out by an occupant of the property," he added.

Mr Doherty asked them if it was possible the liquid had been poured through the letter box. Both men said their examination of the scene indicated this was not the case.

Cause of death

Just over half of the 21 witnesses due to give evidence took the stand on Tuesday.

It is expected that members of the McElhill and McGovern families will be called to give evidence along with anyone who had dealings with the victims before the fire and members of the medical and emergency services.

The families were briefed on the evidence before the hearing began.

Each of the seven fatalities will be addressed separately before the coroner decides on the cause of death.

Death certificates will be issued when the proceedings have been completed.

Last July, an independent report criticised how information was communicated within the Western Health and Social Care Trust and other agencies over the assessment of the potential risk posed by Mr McElhill to teenage girls.

The report had 63 recommendations and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said they would be implemented and that child protection services across Northern Ireland would also be inspected.

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