On the search for Cork’s missing persons

Ellie O’Byrne spends a day on the river with the volunteers of Cork Missing Persons Search and Recovery Unit and hears about the essential and good work they do — for free.

On the search for Cork’s missing persons

The twelve volunteers of Cork City Missing Persons Search and Recovery (CCMPSAR) unit provide a compassionate service to the families of missing people in Cork on a shoe-string budget.

On a sunny day at the Port of Cork, David Varian and David Linehan are putting on their dry suits.

“He’s the cranky Dave, I’m the handsome one,” Linehan jokes. Along with their fellow volunteers, they are cheerfully preparing for a training session on the river. When the talk turns to their purpose here on Cork’s Leeside, the mood changes.

Most of these men have personal experiences of family members being recovered from the river, and they know how important it is for the bereaved to get closure. The service they provide to their community is a labour of love, easing the pain of the families who seek their help and preserving the dignity of those whose remains they recover.

Linehan became a founding member of CCMPSAR after his father went missing in 2001. “We recovered him at Marina point after three and a half months of searching. It was just me and a few friends out looking. When my father was laid to rest, I said, ‘something has to be done about this’.

“We started getting lads in and training them up in diving and here we are fourteen years later, still doing it. We’ve been involved in hundreds of searches,” he says.

The search normally begins when a worried family member contacts CCMPSAR, after filing a missing persons report with the Gardaí. With help from the public many people reported missing are recovered alive and well. CCMPSAR puts out appeals via social media before initiating a search.

Sometimes the team assist in the rescue of someone who’s still alive. In March, a man was helped to safety from under one of the bridges. However, all too often they are involved in recovering remains. In 2014, between February and December, they assisted in the recovery of five deceased persons from the river.

“You always have three possible scenarios with a missing persons case,” Linehan says. “The best case scenario is that the person is found alive and well. A bad scenario is when the person is recovered deceased, but the worst case scenario is that the person isn’t found at all and the family is left living in limbo.”

As the outboard motors start up and the volunteers begin their training exercise, Linehan explains the methods they use to conduct river searches. There may be sightings to go on, or information on a person entering the water at a certain point. Often volunteers will walk the river banks, keeping in radio contact with the CCMPSAR boats; two Rigid-hulled inflatable boats, or RIBs, fitted with outboard motors.

CCMPSAR liaise with the emergency services and other groups such as Civil Defence, the Canine Search and Rescue, the Mallow Inshore Search and Rescue, The Missing Persons Association and the Coastguard. Although their main focus is the river, they have also been involved in land searches.

“An average day’s searching is between eight and 12 hours and we keep that up until the person’s found. We have days where people pass us down food and we just eat here and keep searching,” Linehan says. A search can last for months. “When we’re down here searching for a person, that means that the fire brigade or the coast guard can leave; we’re freeing up emergency services as well by the work that we do.”

A sailor in the Merchant Navy and a keen diver, David Varian has volunteered with CCMPSAR since 2007, a year after he assisted in the recovery of his brother Kenneth. Varian’s family has been struck by double tragedy; two of his brothers, Jim and Kenneth, were found deceased in the Lee, over a decade apart. Jim was recovered in 1995 and Kenneth in 2006.

His own experience gives him a deep understanding of what the relatives of a missing person go through. “They cling to the hope that maybe they’re not in there,” he says, sitting in the orange RIB as it motors up the South channel of the Lee. “I remember with my own mother, she kept saying, ‘maybe he just doesn’t want to be found’. Everyone does that. Psychologically, they know they’re in there but a tiny part of them keeps saying maybe they’re not.”

Edwin O’Sullivan, who serves in the army, is using the portable Humminbird sonar scanner, which takes pride of place on the orange RIB, to scan the river bed while Denis ‘Dinny’ Kiely pilots the RIB further up the river. Shapes on the river bed scroll into view on the screen, glowing green. Purchased last year, the state-of-the-art sonar device hasn’t yet been used to make a recovery but is already proving invaluable; SD cards store records of their sweeps to be brought home by crew members and they can use features as measuring tools. to identify anomalies.

If the scanner shows up something that looks like a body, a shot line with a weight on one end and a buoy at the other is dropped at the spot. The river has very poor visibility and the divers can use the line to feel their way down to the object they’re investigating.

CCMPSAR’s boats are named to commemorate people recovered from the river. The orange RIB, used by the divers, is the Daniel Mulcahy, and the grey recovery boat is the Aidan Brereton, whose family made a generous donation to buy the boat.

Other community members have been equally generous; Fergus Thompson in Blackpool Auto Centre donated the CCMPSAR Jeep. However, day-to-day running costs are expensive and include diesel as well as inoculations and protective gear for the divers.

The volunteers get by; their dry-suits leak, meaning they often go home soaking wet and freezing cold. A recent search notched up diesel bills of €700 and one volunteer dipped into his own bank account to keep the search going. Registering as a charity comes with administrative costs of both time and money that the team feel they can’t stretch to; their place is on the search, not in doing paperwork.

They are operating at the core of a wider base of community support. “The women that do the mini-marathon are fantastic, we couldn’t do it without them. Their fundraising keeps us going throughout the year,” Linehan says. Keen to provide transparency, they publish their accounts annually on their Facebook page so that donors know how their money is spent.

Recently David Varian sent a letter to all 31 Cork City Councillors requesting a donation. “If each had given €100 we could afford brand new dry suits for the lads in the boats,” he says. CCMPSAR are very grateful to the four Councillors who have responded so far.

As Varian talks, his eyes flick constantly to the sonar screen, pointing out and identifying objects like tyres and shopping trolleys at a glance. Can he ever switch off the search? “In a way you never stop looking,” Varian says. “We’d one chap who was missing for three years, and we’d go for walks down the Marina and you’re still looking. Even if you’re driving through town you’re constantly looking in the water. But there is a time where, mentally, you have to stop.”

Edwin O’Sullivan has been volunteering for two years and has assisted in one recovery so far. “It was a bit of a shock, to be honest. You don’t feel great after it. But you have to go home and play the family role again. Dinny there probably goes out and digs up the garden! Life goes on.” Dinny Kiely is a keen gardener and fisherman and has been on the Lee all his life. He lost an aunt in the river in 1987.

“She was actually in here,” Kiely says, pointing towards the pilings on the side of the quays. “I was fishing for mullet down here the whole time she was missing and to be honest with you I was afraid to find her. I was young at the time. Since then I was always interested. I helped Dave with his own father and then kept volunteering after that.”

Part of the reason Kiely volunteers is to recover bodies so that others don’t have to. “You have family coming down; you wouldn’t want somebody’s mother having to find them. That wouldn’t be right.” Is he ever disturbed by the recoveries? “You just do your work quickly and don’t be staring at them,” he says. Varian nods in agreement: “As much as we can, we’re preserving their dignity; they’re still somebody’s son or daughter and we never forget that.”

When they make a recovery, they contact the Gardaí, who meet them at the Port of Cork, where gates keep members of the public from prying; like the emergency services, CCMPSAR are encountering the growing problem of people trying to film and take photographs at the scene of a recovery, something that upsets them all.

The team describe a sense of bonding and elation after a recovery. “When there’s a recovery made we all hug each other. We stand around down here, the Gardaí come and thank us and then our job is done,” Varian says. “It’s good to give the family members back the remains so they can lay them to rest. It’s a relief.”

Back on the quayside, the team pose for a photo. Are they heroes? Varian smiles. “Ah, no, I wouldn’t go that far now at all. I suppose there’s times when the lads would like to be recognised. You know all the buoys that people throw in to the river? We collect them and leave them at the pontoon and a council worker comes and collects them. He knows we do that, but I don’t think the City Councillors know we do that! The Marina’s very good to us and they let us use a shed to store our boats, but we’d love it if the City Council would give us a dedicated unit.”

At the Ocean to City race comes up, the members of Cork City Missing Persons Search And Recovery will be on hand, escorting the teams on the last leg of the race to the finish line. “That’s really nice,” Linehan says. “It’s the one time in the year when we’re on the water that everyone’s happy.”

Contact details:

* www.missingpersons.ie/

* www.missing.ws/_mpassociation/mpAssociation.asp

* www.facebook.com/missing.persons.search.and.recovery/info?tab=page_info

* The National Missing Persons Helpline : 1890 442 552

* CCMPSAR: 087 9609885 ccmpsar@gmail.com

Donations :

The Lough Credit Union, acc num ‘80073951’ sort code 991061. Electronic transfers, IBAN num ‘IE88LOC199106180073951’ BIC num ‘LOCIIE21XXX’ swift code BNPAIE21.

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