Home Insulation Scheme Report: Grieving mother speaks out about son's avoidable death I Photos

Wendy Sweeney's son, Mitchell, was only 22 years old when he was electrocuted in the roof cavity of a home in far north Queensland while working with reflective foil laminate under the former Labor Government's Home Insulation Program in February 2010.

After finishing school at Wade High School, the young Griffith man moved to Queensland, where his brother Brendan lived on the Gold Coast.

He worked in a variety of casual jobs before he heard about the insulation program.

At the time, Cairns and its surrounds were a new market and crews of young men would knock on doors to sell and install home insulation.

Mitchell's mum remembers how her son would ring up and complain how hot it was up there, in the roofs in the tropical temperatures.

"We encouraged him to do his best," Mrs Sweeney said.

After visiting his family in Griffith for Christmas in 2009, Mitchell went back to work.

On February 4, 2010, the young man and his colleagues had already installed insulation at two homes before starting their third job for the day at a house in Millaa Millaa, about 100 kilometres from Cairns.

It was a Thursday, and Mrs Sweeney was busy at work, when her son, Brendan, rang at 11am.

"He said Mitchell had been in an accident and asked whether I knew more," she remembers.

"I thought maybe he'd fallen through a roof or had been in a car accident."

The mother-of three said she expected "something like a broken leg".

She contacted Cairns police and ambulance, but nobody knew anything.

"We couldn't get any answers, but I suddenly had this horrible feeling, a feeling of dread."

When her son rang again to say he had heard from a mate that his brother had been killed, the family did not want to believe it.

"I couldn't sit down and I tried to get answers, but we didn't know who to ring," Mrs Sweeney said.

At noon, the office phone rang and one of Mrs Sweeney's work colleagues answered. She looked at Mrs Sweeney in silence, and shook her head.

"She didn't have to say anything," Mrs Sweeney said.

"Until this day, I don't even know who rang."

The administration assistant said she was in a state of shock when she was given a lift home, where she met with her husband, Martin.

"We couldn't believe it.

"Sometimes I still can't," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

"I think I didn't eat for two or three days; I was bawling and couldn't stay still or go to sleep.

"I felt like a caged tiger, trapped in a bad movie that never ends.

"It is a nightmare that never goes away."

By Friday, Mrs Sweeney felt the urge to organise her son's funeral.

"We had to bring him home," she said.

"But the coroner still had to do his thing and it took a week to get him home."

Mrs Sweeney remembers the pain she felt when people helping with the organisation of the funeral would suddenly refer to her beloved son as "the body". "They said we have to bring the body home.

"But it wasn't a body, it was still Mitchell.

"He was still a person, still someone's family."

Mrs Sweeney said the funeral service was "a blur", but she remembers a large crowd of people who all wanted to pay their respects for her son.

The grieving mother said loosing a parent, who has lived 60, 70 or 80 years, was one thing but having to organise the funeral for a young person was another.

"It was horrible, just terrible," she said. "Nobody can imagine what it feels like."

The humble mother's face lights up when she recalls memories of better days.

"Sometimes I think he was too good for this earth. He was so laid back and nothing worried him.

"He had a few little medical problems when he was little and would come into our bed at night.

"We were really close."

Mrs Sweeney said her boy was a "big softy, a big teddybear", with a funny sense of humour and good manners.

"And he would always think of others first," she said.

"Since he was tiny, he would always care about others."

Mrs Sweeney's eyes sparkle when she talks about young Mitchell.

"In grade three or four he got into trouble because he never finished his assignments on time, and we had to see his teacher.

"We found out that one of his little mates had problems with his assignments and Mitchell would help him, which was why he never got his own work done on time.

"He was always looking out for everyone."

The mother-of-three said dealing with the loss was at times an unbearable task.

"I think if he went for a swim in the ocean and got eaten by a shark or ran into a tree, it's something that I could handle as it (his death) would have been because of his own doing.

"What really hurts is that his death could have been prevented.

"And I hate the cemetery, I hate going there.

"I walk across the lawn and I get jelly legs because I don't want to be there and he shouldn't be there.

"He should be living his life.

"It is hard to accept that others are responsible for his death. People who didn't listen to the experts.

"He could still be here ... "

Mrs Sweeney said an apology made by Kevin Rudd more than two years after the death of Mitchell and three other young men, was "half-arsed".

"He didn't mean it why would you wait for more than two years to say sorry?"

And to make matters worse, the Sweeney family never received an apology from Mitchell's employer.

"There was nothing," Mrs Sweeney said. "No apology, nothing in writing, not even a phone call.

"To say 'sorry, your son got killed on our watch' takes a lot of guts, and it is really disappointing and very sad that nobody ever said sorry to us."

Mrs Sweeney said the coroner's report had found her son was still breathing when he was pulled out of the roof cavity.

"The really tragic thing is that Mitchell was an organ donor," she said.

"But they couldn't use his organs because they would have been damaged by the electrocution.

"I often think how many people my young, fit and healthy son could have helped."

More than four years after the death of her son, Mrs Sweeney still struggles with the loss.

"Sometimes I don't know how to cope," she said.

"But you just have to.

"There are the other kids and grandkids now, and you just have to carry on.

"Brendan is the worst affected.

"When Brendan and Mitchell were at the Gold Coast together they relied on each other.

"With their mates, they were like one big happy family.

"Now sometimes Brendan rings at 2am and says 'Mum, I miss my little brother'.

"We do to. But what can we do?

"We won't ever get over it."

Mrs Sweeney said after reading the coroner's report she often lays awake at night thinking about her beloved son's last moments.

"Sometimes at night I picture in my head what happened.

"You go through it over and over again. But you can't change it.

"The last time we saw him was at Christmas (in 2009) and then for 10 minutes after he died, at the viewing. You say 'goodbye' and that's it. It's final."

She said it was often hard to put on a brave face.

"You try and act normal, look normal.

"And then, if you managed to go out with friends especially in the first months after it happened I used to feel guilty whenever I had a good time.

"I wondered whether people thought that I didn't care any more and that I was over it I wasn't, and I never will be.

"Nobody can comprehend what it feels like.

"A part of you is gone."

Mrs Sweeney said she spoke to Mitchell on the phone the night before his death and it is the memory of the last conversation with her son that she will treasure forever.

"We spoke about random things before he had to go because he had a big day the next day.

"I'm so thankful I rang him that night to speak to him."

Mrs Sweeney said for months after her son's death she would dial his mobile number, "just to hear 'this number is disconnected'".

"Not long ago, Brendan asked me whether I would still ring Mitchell's phone and I said yes.

"It's the last little something we've got.

"I just miss him so much.

"Even though he didn't live at home any more, we would talk on the phone two or three times a week."

Mrs Sweeney said festivities such as birthdays and Christmases have lost all their excitement for her.

"The first Christmas we all sat around the table and there was an empty chair.

"We all knew some things would never be the same again."

The grieving mother said one of the hardest things she had to do since her son's passing was attending a wedding.

"All his mates get engaged or have babies, and everyone is moving on," she said. 

"And while I'm happy for them, I am sad at the same time, because my son is not going to do any of that. We went to a wedding and through the entire ceremony tears were rolling down my cheeks because it's something we'll never get to do with Mitchell."

Next April, Mrs Sweeny, together with a friend, will travell to Millaa Millaa in a bid to find some closure.

She said she was hopeful she would get to thank police officers and paramedics, and she would like to talk to the man who lived in the house where her son died.

"Last I heard, he was living in a caravan. He didn't want to go back. He was badly affected.

"I've seen photos of the house where it happened, but I want to see it with my own eyes," she said.

"I want to look at the house and hopefully it helps to bring a bit of closure."


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