The task being undertaken by the crew of Irish Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 when they disappeared was almost a carbon copy of a mission they carried out with their Sligo colleagues in Rescue 118 just six days earlier.
On Wednesday, March 8, they were called on to provide top cover as Rescue 118 flew to evacuate an ill Russian crewman from a vessel 300km west of Blacksod.
Then, as yesterday, the operation took place in the early hours of the morning, the location of the casualty was similar, the duties assigned to both helicopters identical, and the conditions broadly the same.
Unlike yesterday, Rescue 118 came home to find their activities recorded on Facebook by their fellow crew in Shannon, who took pride in detailing the work of their “sister ships”, announcing: “Mission successfully completed.”
Why the outcome of this week’s mission was so tragically different to that achieved six days previously was a complete mystery yesterday.
What is known is that at around 9.40pm on Monday, a British-registered fishing vessel travelling off the Mayo coast sent out a call for help for a crew member who had been injured in an accident on board.
The call was picked up by the Irish Coast Guard’s rescue co-ordination centre at Malin Head, Co Donegal, which immediately alerted the crew of the Sligo-based helicopter, Rescue 118.
It was in the air shortly after 10pm, stopping to top up on fuel at Blacksod before heading to the casualty located 240km offshore.
Simultaneously, the crew of Rescue 116 travelled from their base at Dublin Airport towards Blacksod to refuel in preparation for providing cover for their colleagues on the most dangerous part of the trip: Their flight over water and the winching of the injured party to safety.
Such top cover, as it is called, is normal, ensuring there is back-up personnel and close-range communications. The mission proceeded without incident until Rescue 116 approached the west coast and had some difficulties in contacting Rescue 118 to advise that they were on target to refuel at Blacksod.
However, this does not appear to have caused any undue concern as communications between Rescue 116 and air traffic control were clear. Around 12.45am, Rescue 116 confirmed they were about to begin making their approach to Blacksod, a route that took them over water.
They were not heard from again and, soon after, they disappeared from radar. The Coast Guard raised the alarm which was relayed to the other Coast Guard helicopter bases, the Air Corps, RNLI, Naval Service, and private vessels in the area.
At 1am, formal notification was made to the Air Accident Investigation Unit that an aircraft was missing.
It was immediately clear something catastrophic had happened. Emergency services personnel are often careful not to publicly presume the worst but Coast Guard representatives spoke with candour when facing the media early yesterday.
They had grave fears for their missing colleagues, crew members, Mark Duffy, Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby, and gave little room for false hopes.
When Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was pulled from the water shortly before 8am and rushed to hospital in Castlebar, they reported that she was categorised as “critical” but added that they did not hold out much hope for her. Their worst fears were realised when the experienced pilot passed away yesterday afternoon.
They are practical people at the best of times but there was no way to sugarcoat the awfulness of the situation.
Neither was there time to dwell on it. A huge search operation had to be co-ordinated and, despite the obvious emotional toll on personnel put to work to find people they regard as their own, they were clear that they had to concentrate on the task in hand.
An Air Corp Casa maritime patrol plane was quick on the scene. The LÉ Róisin naval ship arrived soon after and Garda divers arrived and set up their base on it. Coast Guard helicopters from Sligo and Shannon took turns in scouring the area. The RNLI from Achill and Ballyglass sent lifeboats and six fishing trawlers dropped everything to assist.
As the morning wore on, a smattering of debris found floating on the waves around 13km from shore became a considerable collection of wreckage. The fishing vessels picked up the pieces and brought them ashore.
Every piece is precious to investigators but most vital of all are the black box recorders that should contain information on what happened that night.
One records voice traffic, both between crew inside the helicopter and their exchanges with other craft, air traffic control, and the Coast Guard. The other records technical information — routes, speed, height, power, fuel consumption, and the performance, or failure, of key parts of the helicopter.
If they did their job, if they survived the trauma, and if they are recovered, the recorders should enable investigators recreate the flight and its final moments and explain what went wrong.
Weather conditions were favourable to the searchers yesterday — or at least as favourable as an area of deep waters, rocky coasts, tricky currents, ever-present wind, and frequent rain can be.
Today is due to be reasonably kind too and the conditions should hold tomorrow, but rain and wind are expected to cause problems from Friday so the pressure on the searchers to cover as much surface, seabed, and coastline as possible before then is great.
However, it was not just fragments of metal and machinery the search operation sought. It was the bodies of Capt Fitzpatrick’s three crew members — each one a vital piece in a family suddenly broken by sorrow.
The search and recovery operation will continue indefinitely or, as the Coast Guard put it with candour, as long as reasonable, but it is not the kind of job anyone of the emergency services involved will want away from. This is one they desperately want to end with the sign-off: Mission accomplished.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved