Cork University Hospital copes when disaster calls

Major events with multiple fatalities have featured in the history of CUH, writes Denise O’Donoghue

On a Sunday morning in 1985, 329 people lost their lives when a plane travelling from Canada exploded in Irish airspace.

Six babies were among the 82 children under the age of 13 who died in the crash.

The victims were flying on Air India Flight 182 when Sikh terrorists blew up the plane as it was travelling over the coast of Co Cork.

There were no survivors.

The flight from Montreal to Bombay via Heathrow Airport disappeared from the radar shortly after 8am. Despite a massive air and sea search 80 miles off the Kerry coast, hundreds of passengers were still missing 24 hours later.

On the Monday morning, 123 bodies were recovered from the sea, the vast majority were badly mutilated. RAF and Navy helicopters transferred the bodies to Cork.

That weekend is etched on the memories of the people of Cork, none more so than those at the heart of the chaos — the staff of the then Cork Regional Hospital.

Cork University Hospital (CUH) marked its 40th anniversary last month, having opened its doors on November 30, 1978.

Staff members who have worked at the complex over the decades spoke to the Irish Examiner of fond memories, but also of heartbreaking times.

The Air India disaster is one of those difficult days they recalled.

“The biggest thing I remember was the Air India disaster,” said Anne Sheehan, who has worked as a medical scientist at the CUH since 1978.

“That was incredible. I was on call at the time.”

What remained with Anne over the years was the memory of “the way everyone got together” to deal with the crisis.

She said staff members worked after hours to deal with the chaos and helped those in other departments.

We all stayed on after work. I just remember everyone doing everything,” Anne said.

The hospital had implemented its major accident plan following the disaster, which had previously been used during the disasters in Whiddy and Buttevant.

Over 100 staff turned up voluntarily to help.

“We have been very impressed by the workings of the staff,” Dr Michael Molloy, the hospital’s press and medical coordinator, told a press conference at the time.

Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald, who visited the hospital days after the crash, also praised the work of the medical personnel.

Anne’s colleague, Colette Healy, remembers the 132 bodies which were recovered from the sea being brought to the hospital.

“It was down in physio where they brought all the bodies in,” she said.

Gerard Buckley, who has worked in the hospital’s medical records department for 40 years, said it was the worst disaster the CUH has ever seen.

There was the Buttevant train crash as well,” he said, referencing a crash which claimed the lives of 18 people in Ireland’s worst ever rail disaster at Buttevant, Co Cork. "But Air India was the worst.”

Gerard said it was a horrible time for all involved.

“Air India wasn’t really a live disaster as everybody was dead, but the smell…” Anne agreed: “It’s the smell that stays with you.”

Around 100 relatives of the victims arrived in Cork at the time to help identify the remains.

“The bodies used to be stored in refrigerated containers and they used to be brought in to be photographed and x-rayed,” Gerard said.

“It was really like a meat factory, it was horrible. Not to mind the trauma of it.” The media coverage of the tragedy was unlike anything the hospital staff had experienced before.

“You weren’t used to all the international media being around before that,” Gerard said.

An Irish Examiner report from the day after the disaster describes the international media waiting for updates at the hospital: “During the day, members of the world press waited in a dimly-lit hospital corridor waiting for any updated information. They were not allowed near the gymnasium and a complete embargo was placed on any photographs being taken of the bodies.”

Irish Examiner photographer Denis Minihane arrived at the hospital after the bodies were brought from the site of the crash.

His dramatic photograph of some of the bodies at the hospital’s temporary morgue was taken through a window.

It became the defining image of the disaster and was published in newspapers and magazines all over the world including LIFE magazine. In 1986 it won a news picture of the year award.

With waiting list numbers rising and more people waiting in A&E on trolleys, Gerard said he doesn’t know if the hospital could cope if something like the Air India disaster happened in 2018.

“Nowadays you’d fear if you had the likes of a plane crash. A&E is so congested all the time, would they be able to cope with 50 or 100 people coming in at the one time?”


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