Union Hall revisited by tragedy once again

Tragedy revisited Union Hall in West Cork yesterday when two divers died while exploring the wreck of a World War II German U-boat.

The two men, one of whom is British and the other who is understood to have been born in England but who had been living in Australia, got into serious difficulty on a dive to the wreckage of the U260 submarine located more than two miles off High Island near Glandore and Union Hall.

It sparked a huge search and rescue operation, with up to 100 people involved.

The latest marine tragedy in the area comes less than three years after five men lost their lives when the fishing vessel the Tit Bonhomme hit rocks in nearby Glandore.

It is understood the two men were experienced divers and had been regular visitors to the West Cork area. According to Valentia Coast Guard, it is understood they submerged at 9.15am from the Baltimore-based Wave Chieftain charter vessel, and came to the surface at 9.42am. It is believed they then re-submerged, but that they got into difficulties. One of the divers came to the surface but the other did not.

The man who surfaced, a 66-year-old, was recovered from the sea by Shannon Coast Guard helicopter and taken to Cork University Hospital at 10.40am but was pronounced dead. Coast Guard helicopters from Waterford and Shannon continued the search alongside the LÉ Eithne, which arrived in the early afternoon, as well as Toe Head Coast Guard, Baltimore life boat and local search and rescue teams.

The body of the missing diver was found by John Kearney of the West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue Team shortly after 3pm, and brought ashore two hours later. The man, a 61-year-old, was found 300m south west of the wreck site.

“This morning we got word there was a diver missing and we were diving nearby so we headed over for assistance,” he said.

One dive at the wreck site, was unsuccessful due to freshening force 6 winds, so the team waited for a change of tide.

“We searched the wreck in the morning and found no sign of the casualty so in the afternoon, with the assistance of the Baltimore life boat and coastguard, we went out and performed the second dive to an area to the south west of the wreckage, and that’s where we came across the casualty in 43m of sea water.”

He said he could not speculate as to what had happened, stating that conditions had been very favourable and that the divers had been with “a very experienced operator”, Gerry Smith of Baltimore-based Aquaventures.

The skipper of the Wave Chieftain had been joined on board by the divers, a father and son duo, and one other non-diving member.

The man at Valentia Coast Guard Station who took the emergency call from the Wave Chieftain said the alarm was raised at 9.49am.

It is understood one of the divers was on his third or fourth visit to the area and that he has been diving since the late-’60s and was very experienced. It is believed the other man had been diving for 10 years and had experience of cold water diving all over the world.

Both men are thought to have been staying in Baltimore. One of the men was on his fifth dive of the week and the other was on his ninth.

Two other divers, a father and son, were also on board, but it is not thought they dived, and a non-diving person was also on board as well as the boat’s skipper, Gerry Smith.

Locals said the dive site was regularly visited by recreational divers, but due to the depths of up to 43m was the reserve of experienced dive enthusiasts.

Saddest flotilla carries second dive victim to shore

by Noel Baker in Union Hall

Union Hall may have seen grander flotillas in its day, but it has seldom witnessed a sadder one.

Shortly after 5pm in the warm evening glow, the charter vessel, the Wave Chieftain came in to shore, accompanied by a mid-sized coastguard boat and two grey Navy ribs. One of the small boats was sailing, pillion-style, next to the coastguard boat, and carrying a tragic cargo.

On docking, the body of the diver was brought ashore. Earlier, his diving partner had died having been airlifted to Cork University Hospital. A shiny coffin was taken by three men from a waiting hearse, and was returned to the vehicle a short time later by six men. The whole scene played out with just the sea gulls and the humming of the nearby ice plant as a backdrop.

A father and son consoled each other as the man’s body was brought back onto dry land, in circumstances no one ever expected or imagined. It is understood they were among the five passengers on board the Wave Chieftain as it left Baltimore yesterday morning for another day’s diving.

Later, they shook hands with the rescue crews who had helped bring their friend ashore.

The man who found the diver’s body, John Kearney of the West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue Team, spoke of a sense of “déjà vu” about the situation. This part of West Cork has seen its share of tragedy in recent years, not least with the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme in 2012 when five people died.

“It’s kind of a déjà vu. The family and friends were very relieved to make a recovery so quickly because it’s so important to have a closure, as we well know, in any of these events. It’s very tragic.”

The chairman of the medical committee of the Irish Underwater Council (CFT), Prof Gerard Bury, said it had been “a tragic situation” and expressed his condolences to the families and friends of the two men.

He said the CFT worked rigorously to ensure that risks in diving were mitigated but said: “Fundamentally it is a sport that has risks associated with it.”

Shocked locals, those associated with the diving vessel and other members of the holiday diving group now know that only too well. As search and rescue boats and the Wave Chieftain came and went during the afternoon, a seal could be seen bobbing around in the water behind the vessels, like a sentry. By the time the mini flotilla came ashore after five o’clock, he was nowhere to be seen, and probably for the best.

His playful nature would have seemed utterly out of place.


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