Spirit of volunteerism gives hope as search continues

FARMERS, the self-employed, nurses who’ve just finished a night shift, retired and off-duty gardaí are all to be found in the midst of the search for the missing fishermen at Glandore Bay.

Some of the people who are combing the coves around the bay have never been involved in such a tragedy before, but for many, this dedication to the spirit of volunteerism is apparent year-round. Mallow Search and Rescue, Dundalk Search and Rescue, Irish Coast Guard volunteers from Goleen, Toe Head, Castlefreke, Seven Heads, the Old Head of Kinsale, Oysterhaven and Summercove were all milling around the pier at Union Hall.

Richard Hurley, a farmer from Toe Head, is one of the coastguard volunteers who found 40-year-old Abdo Mohamad on Sunday. He got a call from the coastguard at 6.45am and was in the boat in about 20 minutes.

“You have to do what you have to do,” he says. “If the shout comes, you go and that’s it.” And even if there are cows to be milked in a couple of hours, you still have “to get down to the boathouse”.

His unit’s dedication to the cause may have saved Abdo’s life as the coastguard helicopter hovering over Glandore Bay on Sunday morning couldn’t see the fisherman in the water. “We heard him shouting. He wasn’t very visible. We made contact with the helicopter and he was winched up then. He was very hypothermic and wouldn’t have lasted much longer, to be honest,” said Richard.

Pat Maher has been helping the civil defence since Sunday, searching the rocks along the coast. He was a Garda superintendent in West Cork for seven years until he retired last year. He says there’s no way he could sit at home knowing help was needed.

“I spent seven years as superintendent and civil defence, the people of West Cork, the coastguard, the RNLI and the like all helped me when I needed it. They have been good to me and to the gardaí,” he said.

“And you know what, the volunteers and the spirit of volunteerism, whether it’s the women feeding us or the men out diving, they are providing a great sense of comfort to the families. There’s a bit of banter to be had from them even when their hearts are breaking.”

Dozens of off-duty gardaí have been travelling to Union Hall and Glandore, many of them friends and past colleagues of West Cork Superintendent Tom Hayes, a brother of the Tit Bonhomme’s skipper, Michael.

One of the first groups that the Irish Examiner met at Union Hall yesterday was the Mallow Search and Rescue team made up of Ronan Looney, Kieran Horgan, Tony Carmody, Philip Johnston and Paudie O’Shea.

The group’s sonar unit is an asset to rescue efforts. In 2009, they found a 19-year-old UCC student, Barry O’Tuama, from Ballyvourney, who had drowned in the River Lee. Such was the gratitude of the O’Tuama family that they fundraised nearly €50,000 for the group to buy the four-foot sonar scanner and a new rib. Yesterday the team spent the day zig-zagging around an area of about 50 metres.

Tony Carmody told me he’s been on searches every day since St Stephen’s Day. They’re powered by that sense of duty — if a call comes, you’ve got to go.

The group doesn’t get a cent from the state. In the last two weeks alone, they’ve spent €2,000 on diesel transporting themselves and their boat around the country to different searches.

“If we raise €10,000, we have to pay 23% VAT on it. It’s ridiculous. We’ve applied to the state for VAT-free status repeatedly, but never get it,” said Tony.

Coastguard co-ordinator Gerard Flynn is not a volunteer but is charged with supervising volunteer activity.

“At a time of rationalisation, it’s vital that people in Government remember the value of trained volunteers that know the coastline. Local presence is critically important. We needed to activate people from Goleen to Oysterhaven for this search. We needed their training and their local knowledge,” he said.

Tim Feen, a Castlefreke Coastguard volunteer, has been trained in radio usage, walking coves at low water, night searching, and using lamps and radio. He believes it is a “there go I but for the grace of God” attitude that propels them into a boat at 5am.

“We have all been struck by it. When you live in West Cork, you always know someone or are related to someone who has died at sea. It’s that which gets us out into the boat,” he said.

*See Claire’s report from the quay at http://exa.mn/claire

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