The humanitarian mission resulted in 3,337 people being taken to safe harbour. The mission ended successfully late last week when the navy vessel returned to Haulbowline in Cork.
Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy, one of the crew aboard the LÉ Eithne, said while the welcome home was a “fantastic experience”, the time spent operating in the Mediterranean would stay with the crew for a long time.
Lt Mulcahy, who grew up in Watergrasshill having moved from the US when he was 12 years old, said many crew members would have drawn similarities with their own family situations at home and the stricken families found aboard tiny boats floating in the dangerous seas as they attempted to make the crossing to Europe.
The LÉ Eithne conducted 22 operations in the nine- week mission, and those rescued included more than 500 women and 160 children.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane Show, Lt Mulcahy said calming distressed children was the key to putting everyone rescued at ease.
He said that once people had come on board the LÉ Eithne, giving children toys and colouring books was key — the result of clever thinking and generosity by the crew before they departed.
“We thought of a lot of the logistical things we would need but the crew went out off their own back and bought boxes of colouring books, pencil and toys,” Lt Mulcahy said.
The crew had also packed nappies before they departed for the Mediterranean, which ended up being used as younger children were brought aboard, while the purchase of burns kits was also vindicated as many of the refugees rescued had suffered chemical burns as a result of being seated in the centre of the small boats where excess fuel and sea water created a caustic mix on skin.
“We would have seen a lot of second degree burns on a lot of the women and children and that’s something luckily the medics were prepared for,” he said.
Lt Mulcahy said those found adrift in the Mediterranean tended to be on small rubber craft generally eight to 10m long, powered by a small engine but with more than 100 people on board; or larger wooden barges that were “generally quite seaworthy, were they not crammed with upwards of 300 people.” At one point the LÉ Eithne had 647 people on board — “there was people everywhere,” he said.