Navy en route to migrant rescue mission

The Naval Service’s flagship LÉ Eithne is today steaming close to Gibraltar on her way to the Mediterranean, where she is being deployed to save migrants from drowning.

The vessel is expected to arrive in Italy next Saturday and immediately swing into action in a bid to save the lives of North African migrants being smuggled into southern Europe on flimsy craft, many of them dangerously unseaworthy.

The Naval Service has modified the helicopter deck of the 20-year-old vessel to accommodate as many refugees as possible and she will stay in the Mediterranean for two months, after which time she will be relieved by another Irish vessel.

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Among the 70 crew onboard LÉ Eithne (68 Navy and two Army medics) are two women, one of whom, Leading Seaman Katie O’Leary, is responsible for maintenance of the RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats), which will be launched if they come across a sinking migrant-filled vessel.

“I’ll be in charge of the RIBs and 10 people. I’ll also be in charge of firefighting and working with medics and security. This is something completely different for us, a brand new experience and we’re happy to be helping in such an important mission,” she said.

If a decision is taken to launch RIBs to a crippled vessel, Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy, 28, will be the man leading the boarding crews.

“We will survey the craft and supervise the safe embarkation of the migrants. Once onboard (LÉ Eithne) we will look after their welfare and security,” he said.

“I’ve been in the navy for 10 years and this is a chance to do what we’ve been trained to do. It will be self-rewarding to help people who find themselves in such circumstances,” Lt Mulcahy said. Leading Medic Alan Cummins, 36, has the job of assessing any migrants who come onboard LÉ Eithne to see if they need medical treatment, or have communicable diseases.

“We will operate a triage process when we get them on deck, making sure we identify those who need immediate (medical) assistance and give it to them first, later attending to those who are less urgent. This will be a totally different challenge to what we’re normally used to.”

“We’re fully equipped for any medical emergency. This will be a chance to save lives.

“We’ve all seen the footage ourselves (of sinking rafts) and it’s pretty gruesome. We all just want to help.”

Since January, more than 1,700 migrants have drowned and the UN estimates in the same period some 60,000 people have attempted crossings to Italy and Greece.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny bade farewell to the ship as it left Haulbowline on Saturday and said the crew would look into the eyes of rescued migrants and be reminded of the terrible conditions their own forebears had to endure in the coffin ships which left Ireland for Australia in the 1800s.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean is of great concern to the Irish people.

“I want to wish each and every crew member of LÉ Eithne, under the command of Commander Pearse O’Donnell, a safe and successful mission. You will be in our thoughts throughout the duration of your tour of duty,” Mr Coveney said.

“You will encounter trauma, difficulty and tragedy. Unfortunately you are as likely to pick bodies out of the water as you are desperate people who are looking to be saved,” he said.

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