Aaron O’Flaherty from Castletroy in Co Limerick was visiting Black Head lighthouse north of Fanore, Co Clare with his father Patrick Hayes when he stumbled over the cliff edge and plunged into the sea.
The boy wanted to see the lighthouse working, Mr Hayes told an inquest into his son’s death. The pair were on a weekend camping trip to Doolin and had visited the lighthouse earlier that day, May 4 2014. They returned to Black Head lighthouse as dusk was falling.
“He asked me could he see the lighthouse working, that’s why we went back again,” Mr Hayes said.
As they pair sat on the rocks looking out over Galway Bay, Aaron spotted a fisherman on rocks nearby. He wanted to try casting out, his father said.
“As he got up he seemed to stumble toward the cliff edge. I went to grab him but he fell in,” Mr Hayes said. Aaron fell between 4m and 6m into the sea below. Mr Hayes, who trained with the Civil Defence in 2005, said he knew he could not reach him.
“He was treading water and calling out to me, I realised I wouldn’t have been able to swim out to him,” he said. Mr Hayes called 999, untangled the ropes of a life buoy, and threw it, but it did not reach his son.
Mr Hayes struggled as he told coroner Brian Farrell he could not keep hold of his son, after he went into the water.
“I had him in my hands on a number of occasions, the waves kept breaking us apart and pushing us underwater,” he said. “Aaron was starting to struggle.”
The swell was strong and Aaron was swept swiftly out to sea, Dublin Coroner’s Court heard.
Following Mr Hayes’ 999 call, logged at 9.15pm, the Rescue 115 Coastguard helicopter departed Shannon airport at 9.33pm. It arrived at the scene at 9.45pm, as Doolin Coastguard volunteers arrived by boat. They located the boy around 100m from shore, Thomas Doherty of Doolin Coastguard said.
Noting the 12-minute flight time from Shannon to Black Head lighthouse, Mr Hayes said “it still doesn’t explain why it took so long to mobilise” the helicopter.
Aaron was airlifted to Galway University Hospital and later transferred by ambulance to Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin where he died four days later. The cause of death was irreversible brain damage due to a lack of oxygen, secondary to a drowning episode.
The lighthouse is approached by a path with a ‘No Entry’ sign, the court heard. Dr Brian returned a verdict of death by misadventure and said he would write to the Coastguard to bring Mr Hayes query on response times to their attention. The coroner said he would contact Clare County Council in relation to warning signs at the location and proper maintenance of lifebuoys.