AN inquest in Exeter this week recorded a verdict of accidental death after 21-year-old homeless woman Michelle Conroy was crushed to death in a tent during a major storm, as Tom Bevan reports.
A POIGNANT message was left among the floral tributes adorning the grass verge where Michelle Conroy was killed by a fallen tree as she sought shelter from heavy storms.
It read simply: “Sorry that Exeter let you down.”
Michelle’s death shocked the city sparking a wave of horror and a swelling of generosity as thousands of pounds were donated to a Echo fund to help the homeless.
It also drew attention to the growing crisis of young homeless people and government cuts to services for homeless people.
And nearly 18 months on from the death of the ‘orange squash girl’, coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland was this week gave a verdict of accidental death after being told about the frantic rescue attempts to free Michelle from the rubble.
Her inquest at County Hall on Tuesday, that was packed with press but absent of any family and friends, also heard about two survivors who narrowly avoided a similar end on that fateful stormy night on Saturday, November 24 2012.
Michelle, who came to the South West when she was placed into foster care in 2007 had recently moved from Gabriel House to the Esther Community.
She smashed the stereotypes of the homeless. She did not drink, do drugs and was well-presented.
But she had been sleeping rough for nearly two weeks when she met Paul Barnard at a soup kitchen in the city earlier that morning.
He suggested she join him and Ryan Davies in the tent that night.
In a statement Mr Barnard said: “There was very bad weather outside at the time and high winds and rain were hitting the sides of the tent.
“All of a sudden the tent collapsed on us with something very heavy on top of it. Ryan and I started screaming; Michelle was silent.
“I felt trapped by a heavy weight all over me and the tent fabric was all over my face. The only thing I could do was bite my way through the fabric. I managed to free myself in about five minutes.
“Ryan had managed to free himself but Michelle was still trapped I was then taken to hospital and told I had a broken bone in my neck.”
Giving evidence to the inquest PC Sarah Payne recalled arriving at the scene and seeing Paul and Ryan “dazed and in shock.”
“One of them had blood pouring from his head,” she said.
“I asked them if anyone else was trapped and one said ‘Michelle is dead.’ The other pointed at the rubble and said ‘Michelle – she is under there.’
“I began to dig through the bricks and was on my hands and knees to remove them. We began to dig through the bricks. At this point, we found some fabric and realised it was a tent. I could see blood on the tent fabric.
“I tried to tear the tent open with my hands. My colleague PC Kennie Knowles then cut it with a knife. As he cut through more layers we eventually found a female, who I recognised as Michelle Conroy.
“She was not moving or making any sounds.”
Michelle was given CPR and after around ten minutes she was taken to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Dr Ian Chandler, who carried out the post mortem said the cause of death was skull fracture consistent with a wall collapsing on her following a fallen tree.
“It was not survivable in any event.” he said.
Toxicology reports found no drugs or alcohol in her blood at the time of her death.
Her GP said she was a healthy young woman with no significant past medical history.
The offending tree was described as a 300-year-oldMonterey cypress tree, weighing ten tonnes, and it brought down a six foot wall.
Martin Westcott, environment health officer for Exeter City Council said the heavy rainfall could have caused the soil around the tree to become loose. The 300-year-old was last examined by Devon County Council as part of its three year surveys in April 2010 and was found to have no defects.
“The weather at the time was severe with torrential rain, flooding and high gusts of wind,” he said.
Following her death tributes poured in for Michelle, who was known as the “orange squash girl” who would never drink or take drugs.
And a canon missioner at Exeter Cathedral at the time of her death described her as a “quiet and polite” girl who had suffered a “sad, broken childhood”.
The Rev Canon Anna Norman-Walker, a Diocesan Missioner at Exeter Cathedral, told the Echo she saw the 21-year-old the night before her death.
“Michelle was a regular at our Friday Night Café at St Petcock’s Church in the High Street,” she said.
“She was a quiet person and private in many ways, but always polite and thankful for what was offered. We shall always remember her as the ‘orange squash girl’ as this is what she liked to drink.”
Steven Morris and Claire Hayhurst: Homeless Michelle Conroy died after tree fell on tent in storm, inquest hears [Guardian, 18 March 2014]
Clare Hayhurst: 300-year-old tree killed woman sleeping in a tent after it was brought down by storms [Western Morning News, 18 March 2014]
BBC Devon: Storm tree ‘killed Michelle Conroy in tent’ [18 March 2012]