We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Sam Boal/

Man in court for homeless hostel arson attack that left victim 'in living hell' in hospital

A woman has been in intensive care since the fire at the Dublin hostel in March.

A 22-YEAR-OLD mother remains gravely ill in hospital and unable to breathe without assistance after she suffered injuries when the homeless hostel she was staying in was set on fire earlier this year.

Shauna O’Brien, has been left permanently blind, unable to speak and suffering from chronic nerve damage after she fell unconscious while trying to escape the fire at the De Paul Hostel on Little Green Street, Dublin 7.

A victim impact statement prepared by her parents and read on her behalf at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court yesterday spoke of the “living hell and devastating trauma” endured by Shauna since the fire on 26 March and their concerns over whether she will survive.

Keith Riggs (38) of Deanstown Avenue, Finglas, Dublin 11, pleaded guilty to two counts of arson and one count of endangerment.

Judge Dara Hayes extended his sympathy to Ms O’Brien and her family and adjourned sentencing until next January to allow for a psychiatric report to be produced for Riggs.

The court heard that Ms O’Brien remains in intensive care under specialist medical teams from the Mater Hospital and from Boston.

Garda Conor Whelan told Shane Costelloe SC, prosecuting, that it has cost Dublin City Council over €2.8 million to repair the De Paul Hostel and to house the residents elsewhere while the building work was done.

The court heard that the De Paul Hostel provides accommodation for some 80 to 100 people, and on the evening in question at least 10 residents were in the building.

CCTV evidence from inside the hostel was played for the court, showing Riggs going into a ground floor toilet at 16:51 and emerging some 50 minutes later, following by an orange flash and a plume of dark, dense smoke.

Riggs was then seen on CCTV taking the fire escape stairwell to the second floor, going briefly into Ms O’Brien’s room before leaving and going into a nearby shower room.  He then came out of the shower room, went into Ms O’Brien’s room again, then went again into the shower room and remained on the top floor for a number of minutes while the area filled with smoke.

Riggs then left down the stairwell and exited the building, the court heard, not before dialling 999 and telling them he was “trapped at the very top”.

The fire brigade responded to a number of 999 calls and began rescuing people from the hostel, including two people who had lost consciousness due to smoke inhalation and had to be physically removed.

Riggs was brought to hospital where he gave a different name but his real date of birth and later checked himself out.

The following morning, the court heard, Riggs presented himself at the Bridewell Garda Station and said he thought he was wanted in connection with fires the day before. He was unable to say why he felt he was being sought, and largely exercised his right to silence.

Riggs was interviewed several times by Gardaí and when asked at one point, “Were you trying to kill them all, or yourself, or what?” he responded by saying “Obviously.”

Riggs also told Gardaí: “I told her to run, to get out because there was a fire, I didn’t tell her to run into the fire. I’m fucked.”

In his fifth Garda interview, Riggs produced a note stating his name and date of birth, and adding:

“I am unstable at the moment. I’ve not been taking my medicine, I’m very unwell at the moment. I did not want to put anyone in danger. The people that are hurt – I’m very, very sorry. I should be in a coma, not them,” he wrote.

A medical report for Ms O’Brien said that due to inhaling toxic acids, smoke and superheated air, her lungs have been so badly scarred that she can’t breathe without a ventilator.

The court heard that she has had multiple surgeries to remove the scar tissues, including as recently as last week, but that the scar tissue keeps growing back and that her prognosis is uncertain and discussions have taken place with her family about a possible end-of-life pathway.

“Her situation remains extremely grave and there are concerns over whether she will survive into the near future,” the report stated.

Michael Bowman SC, defending, read out text messages sent by Riggs on the day of the fire at the De Paul hostel, saying: “I’ll be at peace bro. Tell me Ma I love her too to bits. I’ll catch you in the next life. Tell my son I love him, keep your head up, stay strong, love ya x.”

Bowman said his client pleaded early and said it had not been his intention to cause harm, and that he apologised for the harm he has caused,

The court heard Riggs had an exceptionally difficult background, and that his father abandoned him and his mother because of her schizophrenia, causing him to be taken into care.

He left school at 14 due to behavioural difficulties and was addicted to heroin at 14 also, becoming methadone-dependent by 16.

Riggs engaged in community-based football coaching but was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent significant and severe episodes of psychosis, the court heard. He has a number of previous convictions.

In a victim impact report written by Ms O’Brien’s parents and read out by counsel in court, they said it has been heart-breaking to watch her in an induced coma, not knowing if she will live or die.

They said they have been called to the hospital countless times in the last eight months to say goodbye and that although she has had various surgeries to repair her airways, the scar tissue keeps growing back and effectively choking her.

“She mouthed to me that she loved me. She cried many times about not being able to see her babies; she hoped they would not forget their mammy.”

“This is a living hell for our little girl. She is in horrendous pain and even more pain from the surgeries. She can’t breathe without assistance and is in emotional hell; devastated at being blind and not being able to hold or see her children for almost nine months.”

“We are very worried about what the future holds for her, even if she does survive,” the statement read.

A second victim impact statement was read out on behalf of another hostel resident, who went back into the smoke to assist her disabled husband out of the building.

The woman was hospitalised for five days said she still relives moments of fear and dread and suffers from panic attacks, night waking and depression that had never affected her before.

Riggs will be sentenced on January 16 next.