‘There wasn’t a big bang’

Abdelbaky Mohamed was the sole survivor of the Tit Bonhomme tragedy. These are edited highlights from his testimony:

He said on the Friday the Tit Bonhomme left Union Hall he helped load food and ice. “We went out to a fishing area known as the 16 Ground and started to fish.”

The crew made five ‘shots’, or casting and hauling of nets, resulting in 42 full boxes of fish and some half-boxes.

“I was down in the fish room after 7pm. After we had hauled I found water — not too much — in the bilge pump. When I was finished working in the fish room I went up to [skipper] Michael [Hayes] and he told me the bilge pump was not working.”

The crew hauled again between 11pm and 11.30pm on the Saturday and he made more attempts to fix the bilge pump. It was then that he noticed an oil pipe leak in the main engine.

“It was engine oil that was leaking. Michael tried to find a spare pipe to replace the one that was leaking to avoid having to go back to shore, however, he couldn’t find one.”

He estimated that at around 2.30am they turned for home. At this time all the crew were awake, and he went to bed.

“I think I slept for about 15 or 20 minutes. I woke up with the event of the blow that hit the boat. There wasn’t a big bang. It was more like if you were travelling in your car and you suddenly hit the brake. When I woke up I turned on the lights.”

He said Kevin Kershaw, Wael Mohamed, and Attaia Shaban were in their beds and there was no sign of Michael or Saied Ali Eldin.

“We got up and went to the bridge. Wael and me went through the emergency door while Attaia and Kevin went up the normal access. When we reached the second deck I saw Wael going into the galley and I was around the toilet. At this time the engine and lights went.

“Batteries which powered the lights were knocked on the floor. I didn’t smell any diesel of fuel. The life buoy flare had gone off.”

Kevin was using his mobile phone as a light and Abdelbaky asked Michael if he had called an emergency.

“There was huge waves and there was water going into the wheel house. The boat was being rocked and twisted in all directions by the sea. All of the electrics were gone at this stage. Everything was broken off.”

Michael opened the emergency cabinet and handed out the life jackets. Everyone put them on, but the immersion suits were below deck and couldn’t be reached. Abdelbaky said it was “impossible” to reach the life rafts.

“Kevin was carrying his mobile phone and Michael asked him to phone 999. Kevin told Michael he had no credit but everybody shouted that it was a free call. Kevin dialled 999. I was speaking with the emergency people. Michael gave our position as harbour Union Hall. Then the sea started hitting us, destroying everything. I closed the door behind us to prevent the water from getting in.

“The water blasted through some glass and everybody started shouting ‘open the door’. I opened the door and the power of the sea washed me out. My clothes and my life jacket were ripped off. I swam to the surface and then another big wave covered me for a few moments. I was drinking a lot of water and the waves were pushing me down.”

Using lights from the harbour as navigation, he managed “to swim towards the light” but was in the water for three or four hours. “I reached the shore but I could not stand as I was exhausted. I was also very, very cold. I managed to get out of the water completely and I looked for earth or leaves to warm myself.”

He saw a rescue boat and started screaming, before he was winched to safety.

Later, he said he was “not sure” if the onboard VHF radio had batteries or not, or may have suffered from a bad signal, and that he was not “taking notes” on what other crew members were doing. Questioned by the coroner, he said he could not say who, if anyone, was at the helm when the boat hit Adam Island, and that before he went to sleep Michael may have called Saied to come up to the bridge, but he was not sure.

999 call transcripts

First call:

Kevin Kershaw: “Hello... we need a helicopter quick... we are after hitting the island on the way into Union Hall.”

Operator (999/ Ballyshannon): “Caller, do you need garda, ambulance or coastguard?”

KK: “... on the way into Union Hall... we need a helicopter quick...”

O: “Do you need help in Cork?”

Unidentified second voice: “Yes, we are at, helicopter please, we are after hitting the island off... going into Union Hall. Boat is aground, the vessel... ah shit... is the Tit Bonhomme.”

The call is transferred.

Garda: “Hello, hello, this is Bandon Garda Station.”

Unidentified voice: “Hold it... one minute now... I’m here.”

Second Call: KK: “Where are we, at the... Union Hall.”

O: “Emergency service.”

KK: “We need a helicopter, quick please.”

O: “Do you need garda, ambulance, fire or coastguard?”

KK: “What?” O: “Do you need garda, ambulance, fire or coastguard?”

KK: “Yes, coastguard please... we are at sea here... please can you get a helicopter here... we are after hitting the island going into Union Hall.”

Michael Hayes: “Send the helicopter immediately... she [is] three-quarters sunk.”

Op: “... are you in Cork?”

MH: “Please hurry up please... its come off the rocks... just get on... scramble the helicopter... I’ll talk to you then... please scramble the helicopter...”

Coastguard (Valentia): “What is the nature of your emergency.”

KK: “We need a boat... we need a helicopter... what is the nature? We’re sinking... we’re going underwater. We are three-quarters underwater please.”

Coastguard: “What is your position?”

Second voice: “The island off Union Hall, for fuck sake... we’re at Union Hall... come on, we’re going to capsize.”

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