On The Edge
THE night of November 7, 1992, was foggy and murky along the north Mayo coastline. Captain David Sparrow was on duty at the time in Donegal’s Finner Camp when he was tasked with airlifting an injured man off a fishing boat west of Blacksod Bay. Flying down the coast to Mayo, he was in constant contact with Vincent Sweeney, the attendant keeper at Blacksod lighthouse. The kettle and the hobnob biscuits were always on the ready in the square, squat beacon building that teeters on the heel of one of the country’s most remote peninsulas and the subject of much media coverage in the last week.
“But five minutes before we were due to land [Sweeney] told us the fog had rolled in from the sea. We were worried that if we went out to the casualty, we could get caught with landing and refuelling on the way back. So we tried two approaches to Blacksod and couldn’t see it,” Sparrow recalls in ‘Mayday! Mayday!’, Lorna Siggins’s 2004 book about heroic air-sea rescues in Irish waters.
CAPTAIN Sparrow decided to fly back towards Donegal as conditions were worsening and any landing was becoming more perilous. At one point he considered ditching the helicopter beside Inishmurray Island, off Sligo, ordering the crew to jump out. Ultimately, they flew inland and after one of the crew spotted lights, they landed in a tiny field in Coolaney, Sligo, at 4.30am.
It was a close call. Ironically, himself and his crew, Dick O’Sullivan and John McCartney, had their picture taken outside the local pub the following day. It was called ‘Happy Landing’.
“We got a lucky break, just like the first guy after whom the pub was named,” Sparrow said in Siggins’s book.
For the experienced and brave crew of Rescue 116 – Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, Ciarán Smith, a winchman and Paul Ormsby, a winch operator – they were tasked with another rescue off the Blacksod coastline, with the helipad near the lighthouse their planned refuelling stop too. Their wide experience meant that this was a routine call-out – providing ‘top cover’ for another Coast Guard helicopter tasked to evacuate an injured fisherman from a trawler about 150 nautical miles from Eagle Island – but, tragically, there was not to be a happy landing in the early hours of last Tuesday morning, March 14.
The coordinated search in the hours and days since the Sikorsky helicopter disappeared has been nothing but exemplary. From the navy to the RNLI crews, Air Corps and Coast Guard, An Garda Síochána and local fishermen, the wider community and bereaved families, this was a communal effort as they worked tirelessly on sea and along the rugged coastline.
THIS remote community’s understanding of the whims and moods of the ocean – its currents and swells, coves and caves – proved invaluable to the official experts whose mission was to recover the bodies and the debris from the helicopter in a bid to piece together what happened during those last moments.
With its spectacular land and seascapes, the Mullet peninsula can be an unforgiving place when exposed to sweeping gales and thick mists. It is a place whose cross-century narrative is intimately bound to the ocean: its rolling sea highways carried many economic emigrants to the distant shores of the United States.
Indeed, just up the road from Blacksod Lighthouse is Ionad Deirbhle, where the story of an assisted emigration scheme, which culminated in 3,300 people from Erris and Achill, Inishbiggle and Inishglora, Newport and the Iniskeas, setting sale for the United States and Canada in a quest for a better life during the years of 1883 and 1884, has its origins. Down a sandy boreen beyond the old Coast Guard station and the abandoned shop is Deirbhle’s well where returned emigrants fill their bottles of holy water to transport to their adopted homes. Achill rises like a great wall to the south while the Iniskeas interrupt the horizon to the north west.
Back near the lighthouse is where the Blacksod Memorial Garden is situated. It was created by Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile Eachléim in 2013 to mark the one hundredth and thritieth anniversary of the first Tuke Fund sailing in 1883. Its sculpture of a ship – with separate pieces symbolising each boat that left nearby Elly Bay at the time – is inscribed with the names of the passengers.
Undoubtedly, there will be another sculpture set in this remote spot to mark the bravery of the crew of Rescue 116.