Families heartbroken for heroes lost to the sea

FOR one family the mourning can begin — for another family, the agonising wait goes on.

The devastated O’Keeffe family from Ballincollig, Co Cork, identified the remains of Peter O’Keeffe, a loved son, brother and husband-to-be on a pier in West Cork last night. And while they begin preparations for his funeral, the Herlihy family from Glanmire, in Cork, whose son Jonathan, aged 22, is still missing, must continue the terrible wait.

Both men were swept away from Owenahincha beach on Sunday after saving two people from drowning. For the second day yesterday, dense fog hampered the search for the bodies of both men. And for the second day, family members and friends stood in a lonely vigil on the beach and on the dunes above, watching the sea and waiting. Peter’s father, Reg, his daughters, extended family and friends, and Jonathan’s parents, Liam and Eileen, and their family, huddled in groups as boats crisscrossed the sea. A blanket of dense fog rolled in an hour after the search started at 7.30am yesterday. Visibility fell to below 40 feet and two trawlers out of Union Hall, including the Gaia skippered by Seanie Harrington; dozens of smaller fishing boats, and jet skis had to be called back to shore. The Courtmacsherry and Kinsale lifeboats, as well as coastguard boats, continued their work. The smaller vessels were able to resume their search at lunchtime and the trawlers dropped nets to scour the sea bed from about 2pm. Seven civil defence teams backed up by almost 100 volunteers also had to call off cliff searches because of the treacherous conditions. Some cliffs north-east of Rosscarbery Bay are up to 150 feet high and could not be abseiled in the poor visibility. They were able to resume work as conditions and visibility improved at around 4pm. Dives by garda and naval sub-aqua units were also delayed. Earlier in the day, local sources said that despite strong tides, the missing men’s bodies could still be just a few hundred yards off the shore. And so it proved to be.

The news filtered through just after 5.30pm when a voice crackled over the coastguard radio. It was Seanie Harrington, skipper of the Gaia. He told Lt Commander Brian Fitzgerald, captain of the LE Aoife and on-scene search coordinator, that he had found a body in his nets. He had been trawling the sea bed close to where the men were last seen for up to two hours. Both families were informed immediately and were taken to the Owenahincha hotel for a briefing as Mr Harrington set a course for Union Hall. Members of the O’Keeffe family were then taken to Union Hall while the Herlihy family were surrounded by friends and weary searchers at the hotel. The O’Keeffe family, huddling on the pier as darkness and more fog closed around them, then had the heartbreaking task of identify Peter’s body to gardaí on the pier just after 7pm. The LE Aoife remained anchored in Rosscarbery Bay last night. While it will continue to coordinate sea, shore and cliff searches today along a 20-mile stretch of coastline between Glandore and Clonakilty Bay, the sea search operation will focus on the area where Mr O’Keeffe’s body was recovered. Superintendent Pat Maher, of Clonakilty garda station, also appealed for landowners along the coast to be vigilant over the coming days: “I would appeal to farmers along the coast, and hill walkers, or people out walking their dogs to keep an eye out and contact us, or the coastguard if they see anything.”

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