Three years after two of her children were killed in a house fire, a coroner has ruled the blaze was started after a sheet adjacent to a fan heater caught fire. Herald senior crime reporter Sam Sherwood reports on a mother’s unfathomable loss.
The eldest of her four children, 8-year-old Brayden, had just gone to bed when her youngest, 8-month-old Arianna woke from a nap.
It was about 9pm on July 14, 2020, and Nicole Mulligan gave her daughter some dinner before handing her over to her partner Desmond Cooke.
About 9.45pm she left to head to the supermarket. About an hour later emergency services were called to a house fire at the family’s home.
When Mulligan arrived home she saw the smoke, then her home, and then came the devastating news that Brayden and Arianna were dead.
More than three years on a coroner has ruled the fire was the result of a sheet adjacent to a fan heater catching fire.
In an interview with the Herald, Mulligan says she’s still struggling with what happened that night.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I don’t know if I ever will.”
Mulligan and Cooke moved into the Vivian St rental home in September 2019.
The house had three rooms. Mulligan, Cooke, and Arianna slept in the main bedroom with the baby’s bassinet near the foot of her parents’ bed. The 2-year-old had her own room and the boys shared a room.
The coroner’s report says social workers who visited Mulligan’s homes over the years had noted they were cluttered. However, when a social worker visited in June 2020 the house was clean and tidy.
Mulligan told police that due to a lack of storage, Cooke kept his clothes in a suitcase. She occasionally kept her clothes on the floor because she could not put them away when Arianna was sleeping.
The house had a photoelectric smoke alarm installed in the hallway. However, after an inspection on December 6, 2019, the property manager recorded that the alarm in the hallway was missing. Mulligan confirmed to the property manager she had removed the alarm and would replace the battery. During a re-inspection two weeks later the alarm was inspected and tested.
After Mulligan went to the supermarket Cooke gave Arianna a bottle and put her into bed, turning the fan heater on because the room was cold. He then watched TV in the lounge.
About half an hour later he smelt smoke and heard the smoke alarms.
“He jumped up and raced down the hallway, where he could see flames coming from the main bedroom. The smoke and the flames were too powerful to allow him to enter,” the coroner said.
Cooke then went to the boys’ room and woke them before going to the 2-year-old’s room to grab her.
“When Cooke got outside he realised that Brayden was still inside, and he tried to go back in to rescue him and Arianna. Cooke had to be pulled back from the fire by neighbours. He was screaming about needing to get his children.”
A firefighter said the entrance to the house was filled with smoke and visibility was “zero”. He had to use his hands to feel around.
The firefighters found Brayden lying on the floor of the toilet and carried him outside. Arianna was found near the bedroom door by a metal frame.
Mulligan then arrived at the scene.
“I saw the fire and I just kept hoping that it wasn’t my house.
“I spoke to a police officer about trying to get through to my house and then I saw a picture of me on their phone and I knew straight away.”
Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) specialist fire investigator Jason Hobbs provided a report to the coroner on the fire.
Behind the fan heater in the bedroom were parts of a fitted bed sheet melted into the base of the back of the heater. There was no evidence to suggest there was a fault with the heater.
He concluded that the point of origin of the fire was the fan heater, with its element overheating due to a “partial blockage” of the air intake, which led to the sheet being ignited.
He found a smoke alarm had been mounted over the door in the boys’ bedroom and that it had likely been activated. Another smoke alarm was mounted on the ceiling in the 2-year-old’s room.
There were no smoke alarms in the main bedroom, nor did he find one in the hallway.
Coroner Cunninghame referred to Fenz safety tips for use of electric oil and fan heaters, including ensuring heaters have at least a metre of clear space surrounding them while in use. Clothing and other items were not to be left to dry on top of heaters.
Mulligan and Cooke needed the fan heater to keep their baby warm as she slept, the coroner said.
“It is possible that Cooke did not notice the sheet when he turned the heater on, and it is also possible that the sheet fell from the dresser after he had left the room. Either way, the closeness of the sheet to the heater has had terrible consequences.”
The coroner said the children’s deaths showed why heaters must not be used in cramped or cluttered spaces.
Brayden’s father, Shaun Gibson, told the Herald the last three years had been “turmoil”.
“My own personal journey over these years since my son passed has been an uphill battle. I have had to personally fight against my mental health demons, and having to go through what no parent ever should. Trying to survive the raw feelings, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the despair of losing a child.”
He described Brayden as a “beautiful person”, who always wanted to be around people.
“Whether this was a random person, his friends or family. However, he was very strong-willed, always funny in his own quirky way. He was just the purest soul. He had so much love to give for everyone around him.”
Mulligan thinks about the night of her children’s death daily.
“I don’t sleep … ” she says.
“It’s been three years and I still haven’t come to terms with it. I go to counselling every Monday and it just doesn’t work. There’s nothing you can do for it to work.”
She fondly describes Brayden as a “friendly” boy who was able to make friends wherever he went.
“Arianna was always happy. She never cried, even when waking up. They were both always happy and loving.”
In her home she has a cabinet with her children’s ashes, along with some of their belongings that were spared from fire damage, such as a teddy bear she was going to give Arianna for her first birthday, a “Baby on board” sign and some toys, including Brayden’s Tamagotchi. Every year they still have birthdays for the pair, with Mulligan keeping the candles.
At the top of the cabinet is artwork with the letters B and A with a love heart in the middle.
Mulligan says the pain she feels today is the same as when she heard her children were dead. She recounts a recurring dream she has about her children.
“I dream they’re still alive and that they didn’t actually die. I feel relief in that, I dream that I’m searching for Brayden and then when I finally find him I squeeze him tight and tell him I love him and miss him and start crying.
“Then it takes that one memory to remember he actually did die and then I mourn all over again and wake up with real tears.”
Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.