Panicked last minutes aboard the Tit Bonhomme revealed at inquest

Rarely has a voice ever carried so much panic.

“Yes... we’re at... helicopter please, we’re after hitting the island off... going into Union Hall, boat is aground... the vessel... ah shit... is the Tit Bonhomme, please hurry...”

As the two calls from the stricken trawler, which sank in Jan 2012 with the loss of five of its crew in Glandore Harbour, were played at the inquest in Cork yesterday, the desperation of those on board sundered the air inside Courtroom 2.

The voice in the first call is that of Kevin Kershaw, a 21-year-old who had been living in Clonakilty in West Cork. In the second call, he and skipper Michael Hayes have a chaotic exchange first with an emergency line operator and then the Coast Guard as the Tit Bonhomme lists in ferocious sea conditions.

“What is the nature of your emergency,” asks the Coast Guard based in Valentia. Kevin Kershaw’s reply: “We need a boat, we need a helicopter.” The Coast Guard asks: “What is the nature of your emergency?” Kershaw says: “What is the nature of our emergency? We’re sinking, we’re going underwater.”

The Coast Guard says: “Right, you’re sinking — what is your position?” Kevin Kershaw replies: “We’re three-quarters under water... please...”

Coast Guard: “What is your position?”

Kevin Kershaw: “Ah... we’re at.... we’re at Union Hall... come on, we’re going to capsize...”

That was the last communication from the trawler. As the tapes were played, Mr Hayes’s family wept, while Mr Kershaw’s parents put their heads in their hands. Abdelbaky Mohamed, the only survivor of the six-man crew, looked teary-eyed at the ceiling.

Earlier, Mr Mohamed revealed he had between six and eight hours’ sleep on board the vessel during the fishing trip, in addition to other periods of rest. That view appears to contradict the findings of a report by the Marine Casualty Investigation Unit, which cited crew fatigue as a factor in the tragedy. The inquest also heard that he was found washed ashore in a T-shirt, boxer shorts, and a barely-tied life jacket. He had been in the water for some hours. He told a rescuer: “Let me die, just let me die.”

The Cork County Coroners Court also heard that the first emergency call was made at 5.46am on Jan 15, 2012, from Kevin Kershaw’s mobile phone.

With water entering the wheel house on the bridge and with the electrics gone, the crew urged Mr Kershaw to make the call. He said he did not have any credit, but was told 999 calls were free. The first call was made at 5.46am, having been patched from the Emergency Call Answering Service in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, to Bandon Garda Station. The man who took the call in Bandon, Garda John O’Neill, admitted that the emergency operator had not provided any real detail that could have led to an emergency response being launched.

However, the second call, this time received by ECAS in Dublin and transferred to Valentia, was made at 5.48am, and the inquest heard that an emergency response was triggered four minutes later. The inquest heard that while local man Aodh O’Donnell was first on the scene, the first sea air emergency response arrived 53 minutes after the first 999 call.

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