Fifty years ago today, 61 people were killed when an Aer Lingus plane crashed on a flight from Cork to London, and left many with questions on what caused the tragedy, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
Funeral of some of Tuskar Rock air crash victims at St Finbarr's Cemetery on March 30 1968.
The migratory swans that overwintered in Ireland took their cue to leave from the rising temperatures of spring so they were in no hurry to depart in the early months of 1968.
February and March had been colder than usual and like the weather of recent weeks, many areas were affected by repeated falls of snow.
But eventually, the pull of the breeding grounds proved too strong and in the latter half of March, the Bewick’s swans began setting off for their summer home in Siberia and the whoopers for Iceland.
Their route took them across the south and east coast of the country where they stopped to feed at coastal wetlands, packing on weight for the long journey ahead.
The report of the investigation into the loss of Aer Lingus Flight 712 on a bright, clear Sunday morning 50 years ago today stated:
“There seems little doubt that swan migrations from Kerry, Shannon, Galway etc were on collision courses with the track of EI-AOM.”
EI-AOM, the official registration of the Vickers Viscount aircraft, St Phelim, went down close to Tuskar Rock, about eight miles off the Wexford coast while on route from Cork to London, killing all 61 people on board.
Many theories have emerged over the years to try to explain the crash, the most intriguing and enduring of all being an accidental missile or drone strike from the Royal Air Force base at Aberporth in Wales, perfectly positioned along the St Phelim’s flight path.
Bird strike was in the mix too, and it remains on the list of possible causes in the last official investigation report from 2002, although there is no hard evidence to support it.
Lack of hard evidence or, some would say, lack of will to find it, has hung over the tragedy for the last 50 years.
Cork woman Celine O’Donoghue was a 14-year-old schoolgirl when she witnessed her mother’s heartbreak at losing her sister and two young nieces in the crash.
Celine’s Auntie Eileen and her cousins, Marion, aged 16, and Paula, just two years old, all members of the Gallivan family, were among the 47 victims whose remains were never found. “They got Paula’s coat and doll but there was no other trace of them,” she recalls.
There would be criticism later that not enough effort was made to recover the dead. Local trawlers that came to help were turned away from the crash site in case their nets disturbed the wreckage which was not located for some months and never fully recovered.
Transport minister Erskine Childers would tell the Dáil in answer to questions in May that year that he was satisfied “the best available methods and equipment are being used in the search” and that “everything reasonably possible is being done to locate the wreckage”.
But a review in the year 2000 of the original investigation completed in 1970 noted that the State did not have a sufficiently equipped naval service to carry out the search and rescue operation and stated: “The lack of a financial commitment to indefinitely fund the search and salvage operation may have contributed to its limited success.”
From today’s perspective, it seems unthinkable not to have thrown everything at the salvage effort, but Celine says questioning authority was not part of the culture at the time.
“Not in the Ireland of 1968. We were still nearly fairy and leprechaun country at that point. People were lucky to have landline phones. Computers hadn’t even started,” she says.
Ultimately it was not another language, but a different accent, that brought the lingering questions about the Tuskar air crash into the open.
The family of Joseph and Mary Gangelhoff, the only Americans on board the St Phelim, didn’t accept the 1970 investigation report which had left the door wide open to the theory that a British drone or missile had hit the Viscount.
It had stated, with a frustrating level of contradiction, that “the conclusion that there was such another aircraft in the area is inescapable” while also acknowledging that there was no actual evidence of such aircraft in the area.
“There is no substantiating evidence of such a possibility, but it cannot be excluded for it is compatible with all of the presently available evidence,” it said.
That report, plus the fact that it was the British military who took charge of the rescue and salvage operation, together with the lack of an independent aviation investigation body separate from the aviation regulatory body (the Air Accident Investigation Unit of today was only established in 1994), led the Gangelhoffs to hire a private investigator to try to unearth the truth of what had happened.
The investigator produced evidence, documentation and purported documentation which did little to establish the facts but the publicity garnered by his efforts fuelled debate and media interest here and gradually, the call for a fresh look at the crash gained momentum.
It hit a peak as the 30th anniversary drew near in 1998 and a Tuskar Relatives Support Group was formed.
It was the first time relatives had gathered in any organised manner and a special anniversary Mass was
arranged at the Church of the Assumption in Ballyphehane, the Cork city parish that encompasses Cork Airport. A Mass will be held there again tomorrow.
It was also the home of Fr Eddie Hegarty and a group of his parishioners who were on the St Phelim on their way to a social gathering with local emigrants in London.
There was no typical passenger on the flight that day.
Joseph Gangelhoff was on business and his Irish-American wife had accompanied him.
Nellie Quinlan, a native of Macroom, was returning to her adopted home in Luton after attending her mother’s funeral.
Dr Noel Mulcahy was a chemistry lecturer at University College Cork going to England to source equipment for the university’s new science building.
Maura O’Herlihy was on her way to begin her nursing career. Desmond Walls was travelling in connection with his work at the Cork Harbour Oil Refinery. William Cox-Ife, a Londoner, had just finished up a three week stint conducting the musical Oliver at the Opera House.
There were emigrants returned on holiday, a group of Swiss anglers, and Brigadier Maurice Jephson and his wife, Eileen, owners of Mallow Castle.
A Mass was also held this week at the Teagasc agricultural institute in Moorepark, Fermoy, to remember three former researchers, John Nyhan, Michael Cowhig, and Thomas Dwane, who were travelling to Reading.
The plane’s two pilots, Barney O’Beirne and Paul Heffernan, and the hostesses, Ann Kelly and Mary Coughlan, were simply doing their jobs.
Perhaps it was that diversity of background that kept the relatives from grouping together but the 30th anniversary highlighted what they had in common and a strong network formed.
Celine O’Donoghue was instrumental in establishing the relatives’ group. By then, she was the mother of two preschool girls, one the same age as her little cousin Paula when she died, and it played on her mind that such a precious and innocent life could be taken and no satisfactory reason given.
For a time, she too believed there may be something in the missile strike theory and she was pleased when the Government finally agreed to hold a review of the 1970 report and evidence.
But she says from the moment she heard that the review had noted serious omissions in records of the St Phelim’s maintenance history, she became convinced the cause of the crash was more mundane if no less catastrophic.
From day one, aviation experts had speculated that the manner in which the plane spun out of control and the valiant struggle the pilots undertook for more than 20 minutes to try and right her, could only be caused by some kind of major structural failure.
In the absence of something colliding with the plane, the finger of blame now seemed to point clearly at a problem with the aircraft itself — a problem that might have been known about if the plane was properly serviced and maintained. Without proper maintenance records, it was impossible to judge.
“The day I got a call from Department [of Public Enterprise] in Dublin and they told me that the service cards relating to the Viscount had disappeared on the day of the crash and that that fact was omitted from the original report, I knew then what the real story was,” Celine says.
The Government ordered a fresh study of the crash and that theory was fleshed out. Fresh expert eyes honed in on the tailplane and the strong likelihood that it was rendered ineffective by “structural fatigue, flutter [a violent shaking], corrosion or bird strike”.
The tailplane, like most of the rest of the plane, was never recovered and what was recovered, the 2000 review stated, “was disposed of without adequate notice to interested parties who may have wished to examine same”.
It was shocking to many to discover that up to 1995, 139 Viscount crashes had been recorded around the world with a loss of 1,573 lives. Aer Lingus had 12 such aircraft at the time the St Phelim went down and put them all up for sale following the crash, replacing them with Boeings.
After the 2002 report, the relatives had to take stock. They could keep pushing to find out who was responsible for the missing maintenance records but that would require legal action and Aer Lingus had already given statements that it had exhausted all efforts to find out what had happened.
“We took legal advice but certainly I felt, we know what happened and the people who caused it to happen know what happened so what were we going to gain? It wasn’t going to bring our relatives back,” Celine says.
Today, she will join other relatives for a ceremony at the Tuskar Air Disaster memorial erected by a commemoration committee at Rosslare Harbour.
The plan is that they will be brought out to Tuskar Rock itself so they can lay flowers in the spot where the plane went down and where, for a time at least, the remains of the 47 missing most likely lay.
But that depends on the weather and while conditions of the last month have been uncannily similar to the March of 50 years ago, some things have changed.
With climate change, the migrating swans that once shared the skies with the Viscounts rarely need to come as far as Ireland to spend the winter any more, and all but a few hundred now spend the colder months closer to home.
Celine hasn’t been out to the crash location before and she says it will undoubtedly be a poignant occasion.
“I have moments of sadness when I reflect on what happened and particularly because I remember the effect it had on my mother.
“I would not like to have been the person who signed off on that plane as being fit for purpose or the person who didn’t insist on the scheduled service taking place or whatever else was supposed to be done that wasn’t done, but I know that nobody sat there and deliberately decided to crash that plane.
“People make mistakes and sometimes other people suffer for it.
“So we should use the anniversary to remember the people who died but to remember that lesson too.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.