LOCATED The remains of Mark Duffy are brought on to Blacksod Pier in Belmullet on Sunday afternoon. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
The search for the missing crew of Rescue 116 has been extended north to Donegal Bay after debris of the wreckage was washed ashore along the Donegal coasts.
Naval and Garda divers are also continuing to search around the wreckage of R116 and the area surrounding Blackrock lighthouse in an attempt to locate the bodies of winch men Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith.
The fuselage of the helicopter, which had been carrying four crew, was discovered last Wednesday in a depth of 40m off Blackrock lighthouse which is 13km from the Blacksod coast.
On Sunday, the body of co-pilot Captain Mark Duffy (51), was at last freed from the cockpit by Naval divers, nearly two weeks after the helicopter crashed in the early hours of March 14. The body of senior pilot Captain Dara Fitzpatrick (45) was recovered from the sea on the morning of the crash.
Attempts have been made to partially float some of the wreckage to establish if the missing bodies lie underneath. However, John McLoughlin, Operations and Training Officer with the Irish Coast Guard told The Mayo News last night (Monday) that they are exploring the possibility the remaining helicopter crew may have drifted away from the wreckage location.
“This is an extremely difficult operation and one of the most difficult the divers have undertaken because of the current and the swell out there. There may be a possibility that [the bodies of the two missing crew members] have drifted in the current. We are keeping all our options open,” he said, adding that they will continue to search for as long as it takes.
Coast Guard units in Donegal, Sligo and Mayo will be deployed around the Donegal Bay coast today, along with local RNLI lifeboats. The Sligo-based R118 will also take part in the search.
Closer to home, Coast Guard units are continuing to search the Mullet peninsula while the Shannon-based R115 is being deployed to oversee the air search around Achill and Erris.
The Marine Institute’s Remotely Operated Vehicle has been working through the night, and a new under-water camera system belonging to the Marine Institute is also due to arrive today. This will feed live footage off the seabed to the Gráinne Uaile.
The helicopter’s black box was recovered by divers over the weekend and is currently being examined by the Air Accidents Investigation Unit.
When Captain Mark Duffy arrived at Blacksod pier, a tricolour was placed over the coffin, rescue agencies formed guard of honour and a lone piper, David McNamara from the Achill Coast Guard unit led the cortege past Blacksod lighthouse.
Michael Hurst, Officer-in-Charge of the Ballyglass Coast Guard said the scene was ‘heartbreaking’. “There was a sense of complete sadness when the body was brought ashore and there was a pause in the search to give Captain Duffy his just deserts with the guard of honour. But we did not lose sight of the fact there are still two men out there; we were soon back out on the search,” he told The Mayo News.
“All the agencies involved in the search feel the same, that no stone will be left unturned until they are recovered. We all hope and pray they will be found soon.”
Close to 100 volunteers, including members of Coast Guard units from Galway to Donegal as well as the Civil Defence, took part in the shoreline search along the Mullet Peninsula over the weekend.
Mr Hurst said the constant searching has been tough on the volunteers and can be exhausting both physically and mentally. However, he praised the ‘phenomenal support’ of the local community of Blacksod and the general Erris area in providing shore support for those involved in the search of the missing crew members.
Since the tragedy occurred, Halla Bhreandáin in Eachléim has been used as a base to feed the searchers, with local people and businesses giving time and resources to help out.
Mr Hurst said that the local community’s support has kept the searchers’ spirits high, and he praised their commitment.
“Local people and even people from further afield have been extremely good with providing food and supplies. People might not be fit enough to take part in the search but have been making cakes and stews. The support has been constant since the tragedy occurred,” he said.
“The whole community effort has been phenomenal. As an Erris person it makes you proud to see the community rallying together to support the crews. The response has been absolutely brilliant. When you have been out on the shore for up to four hours and you come back for tea and dinner, it really does boost your morale to know you have been looked after. The small things like a cup of tea and a smile really do help.”