The crew of LÉ Niamh will return home on Friday, October 2, but it is still unknown if the Government will send a replacement ship out to the Mediterranean Sea to aid the EU-led operation to save migrants attempting to make the crossing from North Africa into Europe.
The ship was expected to arrive in the Maltese capital of Valletta today where the crew will enjoy a four-day break before rejoining the humanitarian mission.
Meanwhile, yesterday, (Mon) more than 70 relations of the crew attended a special meeting at the Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline, Co Cork, where they were briefed on the ship’s operations so far.
The briefing was given by the Flag Officer commanding the Naval Service, Commodore Hugh Tully and Captain Dave Barry, who is head of naval operations.
Personnel support staff, who have been providing the crew with counselling, also spoke to the families who later engaged in a question and answer session with navy officers.
The crew were given counselling following two traumatic events during which they had to retrieve deal with retrieving the bodies of 39 migrants who had been crushed or drowned while packed like sardines into totally unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people-smugglers operating out of Libyan ports.
On July 27, they found 14 migrants crushed in the lower deck of a seriously overcrowded wooden barge.
On August 4, another 25 bodies were recovered when a fishing boat capsized as LÉ Niamh was steaming towards it. That day, the crew also picked up 357 survivors, but many others drowned whose bodies have not been recovered.
The fishing boat was top-heavy with migrants, which resulted in it capsizing.
While six of LÉ Niamh’s crew are trained in critical incident stress management, it was decided on both occasions to fly out additional experts to Sicily help with counselling the sailors.
A spokesman for the Naval Service said LÉ Niamh has been pencilled in to return to Haulbowline on October 2 and this would be the case unless she was involved in an urgent, last-minute operation.
“Apart from that happening her time on the mission will not be extended. At this stage we have not been instructed to send another ship out to replace her,” the spokesman said.
The weather is likely to have worsened in the Mediterranean Sea by then.
However, if this has not happened, it is likely that LÉ Samuel Beckett will be sent out, although as winter sets in it would be probably be for a much shorter mission than either LÉ Niamh or LÉ Eithne experienced.
Since leaving Haulbowline on July 10, LÉ Niamh has saved 1,772 migrants and helped to transfer many more rescued people between other humanitarian vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
To date, it brings the number saved by the Naval Service to 5,149 people, as she relieved the Navy’s flagship LÉ Eithne, which saved 3,377.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox