Rescue 116 tragedy: Islander braves the sea to join volunteers

More than 120 volunteers converged on the tiny village of Aughleam near Blacksod Bay in Co Mayo yesterday to assist in the search for the crew members of the ill-fated helicopter R116.

Coast Guard, Gardai and community gathered in Blackrock, Co Louth for a candle lit vigil for the crew of Rescue 116. Pic: Ciara Wilkinson
Coast Guard, Gardai and community gathered in Blackrock, Co Louth for a candle lit vigil for the crew of Rescue 116. Pic: Ciara Wilkinson

They have been greeted by warm smiles and boundless hospitality in spite of the palpable sadness that has hung over the Erris Peninsula since tragedy struck in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The heritage centre in Aughleam has been set up to cater for volunteers, and local businesses have donated food and supplies.

“We can’t keep count of how many searchers are coming through the doors here,” said one of the catering volunteers. “We just keep the pots boiling and shovel out the food.”

Local residents have also offered free accommodation and the use of their cars to volunteers for the duration of the search effort as everyone seeks to play their part in the wake of the tragedy.

“There is a stoic resilience amongst the locals here,” said Belmullet-based senator and GP Keith Swanick.

Searches are confined to land due to high winds and rough seas near Belmullet, Co Mayo, yesterday. Picture: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

“They appreciate loss, as many families in this fishing community have lost loved ones to the Atlantic Ocean. The bravery and commitment of the crew of R116 is deeply recognised here, as is the peril of an unforgiving ocean.”

The crew’s courage and commitment was also the inspiration behind the decision of one man from Clare Island to brave rough seas yesterday to sail for Blacksod and take part in the search.

“There have been three medical evacuations carried out by the Coast Guard from Clare Island in the past month,” he said. “That’s what they do for us, and this is the least I can do for them.”

The islander, who did not wish to be identified, said he had met the crew of R116 on several occasions in the course of their work on Clare Island.

“I’ve met all the crew, but Dara Fitzpatrick is the most one I’d remember,” he said.

“It wasn’t just because she was a woman; it was because she was just so bubbly and down to earth. She’d get out of this massive helicopter, she’d walk up, and she’d just start chatting about the weather like she was just after pulling up in a car.”

Searches continue on the beaches of Belmullet, Co Mayo, yesterday for the missing Coast Guard helicopter crew. Picture: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

The crew of the R116 — Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Ciaran Smith, Paul Ormsby, and Mark Duffy — are well known here.

The helicopter often responded to medical emergencies on Croagh Patrick if Shannon or Sligo crews were unavailable.

Cpt Fitzpatrick’s cousins from Cong, Co Mayo took part in yesterday’s search efforts, which were confined to the shoreline due to high winds and rough seas.

Others who volunteered yesterday included 25 members of Ciaran Smith’s GAA club, former Dublin goalkeeper John O’Leary, and Bernard Lucas, husband of Caitríona Lucas, who lost her life in the line of duty as a coast guard last September.

The warmth of the welcome given to visiting volunteers and the indomitable community spirit has been a ray of light shining through the blanket of sadness that has been cast over the area in recent days, as searchers surveyed the lifeless grey waters from the windswept shoreline while darkness fell on Blacksod last night.

Conditions hamper search for black box

An Irish naval ship near Blacksod Lighthouse as the search continues for the Coast Guard helicopter crew. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA

The mystery behind the tragic fate of the search and rescue helicopter R116 remained guarded by high winds and rough seas yesterday as search operations were largely restricted to the shore, writes Darragh McDonagh.

Weather conditions stalled efforts to reach the helicopter’s black box, which has been detected beneath approximately 40m of choppy waters, close to Blackrock lighthouse.

The naval vessel LÉ Eithne continued to conduct a sea-surface search in Blacksod Bay yesterday but all other search boats were docked as conditions remained treacherous.

More than 120 volunteers instead focused their efforts on a co-ordinated search of the shoreline led by members of the local Coast Guard.

Among the volunteers were 25 members of the Wild Geese GAA club in Dublin, of which missing winchman Ciaran Smith had been a member.

The search was also supported by Bernard Lucas, husband of deceased coast guard Caitriona Lucas, and the families of the other crew members.

It is hoped that a three-hour window between low tides tomorrow will provide an opportunity to conduct preparatory work for the location and recovery of the black box.

However, members of the Garda and naval diving teams have privately stated it could be Wednesday before the substantive operation to recover the helicopter gets under way.

The wreckage of the Sikorsky S92 helicopter is expected to be found at the same location as the black box, along with the bodies of the remaining crew members of R116: Paul Ormsby, Ciaran Smith, and Mark Duffy. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was rescued following the crash but died later in hospital.

Dara Fitzpatrick: Captain of Rescue 116

“If you look at helicopter crashes, 92% or 93% of the time the bodies are found within the wreckage of the fuselage, it is so small,” said Declan Geoghegan, operations manager with the Irish Coast Guard.

The search has been narrowed to an area of sea that measures 100m x 80m close to Blackrock, a jagged outpost of the north-western coastline approximately 13km from Blacksod.

A section of the missing helicopter was discovered on the tiny island on Thursday night by the Air Accident Investigations Unit.

However, no impact marks were detected and it is possible the debris was washed ashore by the high swells.

Among the items recovered are Ciaran Smith’s gloves, each of which was found in a different location. It is understood these have been given to his daughter.

Air accident investigators have said there is no evidence to suggest the helicopter struck the rock or lighthouse before entering the sea.

St Patrick’s Day parades were cancelled in Belmullet, Aughleam, and Bangor-Erris yesterday as a mark of respect to the crew members of the R116.

Instead, they were remembered at morning Mass in nearby Aughleam.

Capt Fitzpatrick is to be buried today in Glencullen, Dún Laoghaire. President Michael D Higgins will be among those attending to pay their respects.

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