SHORE SEARCH Members of the Irish Coast Guard searching the shore near Blacksod in the aftermath of the R116 crash last year. Locals still carry out daily searches one year on. Pic: Keith Heneghan.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the R116 helicopter crash, members of the local community reflect on the disaster
At 1.08am on the morning of March 14, 2017, Vincent Sweeney, the lighthouse keeper at Blacksod Lighthouse informed Coast Guard Head Communications HQ in Malin Head that he had lost contact with Irish Coast Guard rescue helicopter R116.
The Dublin-based R116 had earlier been involved in a routine mission providing ‘top cover’ to the Sligo-based R118, who were evacuating an injured fishermen from a vessel approximately 100 miles off the Achill coast.
The four crew members – Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Captain Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith – were preparing for their arrival in Blacksod to refuel when radio contact was suddenly lost. It later emerged the helicopter had crashed into Blackrock Island, located just 12km off the Blacksod coast.
A May Day emergency broadcast was transmitted and very soon emergency volunteers in the local lifeboat and Coast Guard units were being awakened by the sound of pagers. One of the largest ever search and rescue missions in the history of the state was about to commence.
For 42 days, personnel from various state agencies including the Irish Coast Guard, An Garda Síochána, the Navy, Army, as well as the Marine Institute, Irish Lights and volunteers from all over Ireland took part in the search.
On one weekend 180 divers took to the water while on another day close to 130 fishing vessels trawled the sea from Achill to Donegal. The bodies of Captain Fitzpatrick and Captain Duffy were recovered but despite the extensive searches, the bodies of Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby have never been retrieved.
The news of the downing of R116 brought the national and international media’s glare onto the small Gaeltacht community at the tip of the Mullet peninsula. But not for the first time they were not found wanting when needed in times of emergency.
Michael Hurst, the Officer in Charge of the Ballyglass Coast Guard Unit, was aware the helicopter was in the area at the time and found it hard to believe that the helicopter was missing.
“There was a sense of shock and disbelief that a helicopter would be missing,” he explained after the unit assembled at Blacksod lighthouse.
“You were always hoping, especially for a machine like that to go down, you would be hopeful that you would have survivors found. At first light the magnitude of it unfolded and we began to realise the seriousness of it.
“After the initial 12/24 hours, you are still hopeful with their emergency suits and things like that, you will find them alive. But as time goes by and you go into the second and the third day all hope fades. You are running into a search and recovery situation.”
Unforgiving weather in the initial days after the accident frustrated many search attempts.
Many of the local fishing boats were unable to get on the water for the first few days but those that did played an integral part in locating the wreck under the water. Using local knowledge of the water around Blackrock Island, boats skippered by Eachléim fishermen, Michael Billy Lavelle and Pat Walker located the ‘ping’ from which the helicopter’s black box was located.
An exclusion zone was soon placed around the island as underwater searches continued and local fishermen were restricted to concentrating their search efforts on local islands such as the Inishkeas.
For fishermen like Eamon Dixon of the Erris Inshore Fishermen, the Coast Guard helicopter is often their ‘saviour’ which they rely on if they experience a problem at sea. Once the dives failed to locate the bodies of Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby, they knew they had to do something else to help.
“Our thinking was if they weren’t there they must have floated away. At that stage the only thing we could do to help find them was to organise as big of a sea search as you could. Once Orla Smith [sister of Ciarán] put out the call for help, the amount of vessels which took part was phenomenal. Between big and small vessels we think there was in excess of 100 vessels.”
Sadly, despite the day long search, the two bodies were not found much to the despair of all involved.
For Michael Hurst and his colleagues in the Coast Guard, the failure to find the two bodies has been hard to take.
“Everyone was there and did their upmost to find them. Such is the nature. The tide only gives back those it wants to give back.”
One of the most heartening stories to come out of the tragedy was the help and support which flooded into the community.
“We had approximately 70 women call to St Brendan’s Hall to do all the cooking and catering for the rescue workers and the public who came to help. We reckoned we did over 10,000 covers [meals] over the six week period,” explained John Joe Gallagher, the Chairman of Comharcumman Ionad Deirbhle.
As a fishing community, John Joe said they were well used to tragedies at sea and knew how to react but it was the generosity of strangers which gave them the motivation to carry on when times got tough.
“Many, many children in national and secondary schools around the country wrote to us, sent us cards and donations, confirmation money, communion money to help us with the search and feed the people. The spirit of the children of Ireland kept the women motivated. The cards were kept and put up on the wall for people to read and see and that motivated the women to keep going.”
The families of the missing men were often involved in the searches along the shore and regularly came into St Brendan’s Hall. As well as giving them food and shelter, John said the women also gave great comfort and solace to the bereaved families.
“The comfort the women of Eachléim gave to the families was unreal,” explained John Joe. “They sat with them, they talked to them, they cried with them and they were there to greet them and give them comfort. They did what the women of Ireland do in times of need. I personally would not have the skills for that but the women did. They sat with the families. They knew what to say.”
While the search has been officially stood down, there are regular unofficial searches along the coast of the Mullet peninsula and Michael, Eamon and John all say a day doesn’t go by without someone walking the shoreline.
“We did the best we could,” said Michael Hurst. “There is a huge bond and connection with the families [of the crew] in the community. Yes we would love dearly to find them and bring them home. No fault of our own we were just not able to find them. There was nothing more we could do.”