So others might live


SAD MISSION Coast Guard Members during the search for the R116 crew. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Ciara Moynihan

1207 search-and-rescue-book 1000Air-sea rescue missions are an all-too familiar occurrence here in Mayo, with our wild seas and seemingly endless craggy coastline. A quiet day’s stillness broken by the ominous thrum of a Coast Guard helicopter as it flies overhead toward some stricken soul, or by the sight of an RNLI crew launching out to sea, toward the lost and imperilled. A sharp reminder of the fragility of life and the bravery of others.
A new book by acclaimed journalist and author Lorna Siggins delves into this dramatic world of Irish air-sea search and rescue, charting its history, looking at its successes and failures, and giving insight into the many lives it touches.
In Mayo, our recent collective memory of search-and-rescue is perhaps dominated by the  Rescue 116 crash off our coast and the terrible loss of its air crew, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy and winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith. Siggins originally reported on the March 2017 tragedy for The Irish Times, and she returns to it once again in ‘Search and Rescue – True Stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116’ .
She brings the reader through the background and experience of the four crew, the last hours and final minutes of Rescue 116 after it was tasked to provide top cover for a medical evacuation at sea, the fateful decision to fly to Blacksod rather than Sligo to refuel, the RNLI Achill lifeboat crew’s valiant attempts to revive Capt Dara Fitzpatrick in turbulent seas after her extraordinary swim from seabed to surface, how the four families learned the news of the crash, and tense moments during the search for the remains of the missing three crew.
More than simply cataloguing the events as they unfolded, Siggins exposes the shocking systemic flaws that led to it – as well as to other Irish air-sea tragedies, such as the loss of four Air Corps crew returning from a night rescue in heavy fog off the Waterford coast in 1999 and the loss of experienced volunteer Caitríona Lucas from Doolin Coast Guard in Co Clare, just six months previous to the R116 disaster.
But among these tales of awful tragedy, Siggins shares many stories of courage, relief and celebration, when despite all the odds, lives have been saved by the bravery and dedication of members of the Irish Coast Guard, Air Corps, RNLI, fishing crew and the volunteers who work with them.
Who could fail to be heartened by the miraculous survival and rescue of young Galway paddleboarders Sara Feeney and Ellen Glynn in August 2020 after 15 hours at sea, drifting 33km from the coast? After a tense search involving Irish Coast Guard, the RNLI and local volunteer seafarers, the cousins were rescued by father-and-son fishermen Patrick and Morgan Oliver.
Other uplifting stories include hitherto unsung missions by RNLI volunteers – including the role played by the Dunmore East, Kilmore Quay and Rosslare lifeboat crews in saving nine lives and averting a major environmental disaster in October 2020, when a 4,000-tonne cargo vessel carrying coal lost all power and was in real danger of hitting rocks south of Hook Head.
The extraordinary efforts of Irish Coast Guard helicopter winch men in award-winning rescue incidents off Donegal, Dingle and Inis Mór are also described, and the marine rescue awards conferred on RNLI, Irish Coast Guard, Air Corps and individuals are detailed too.
Reviewing ‘Search and Rescue’, author, poet and RNLI volunteer Eleanor Hooker wrote: “With more than 30 years’ experience as a journalist and as former marine correspondent with The Irish Times, Siggins knows how to present details in a clear and non-judgmental way ... In each story, Siggins gives space for families, friends and rescuers to speak, and as their words lift off the page they, to quote Heaney, catch the heart off guard and blow it open … Her book is thoroughly compelling.”
In interrogating the systemic failures in missions that have gone terribly wrong, in celebrating the highs of the rescues that succeed, and in highlighting the humanity of the people involved, Siggins has done a great service to the men and women who have been lost – and those who continue to risk their lives – trying to keep the rest of us safe.