By David Raleigh
Two men have been killed in a tragic accident on the River Shannon this evening.
The men were carrying out structural works to Thomond Bridge when a cable attached to a crane that was holding a cage in which they were standing snapped.
The cage crashed into the river, trapping the men under the surface.
Limerick City and County Council has confirmed the deaths.
The council released a statement saying: "It is with deep regret that Limerick City and County Council can confirm that two employees of a firm contracted to undertake remedial works to Thomond Bridge in Limerick City have died in a workplace incident this afternoon.
"The Council is liaising with An Garda Síochána and the Health & Safety Authority in relation to the incident.
"The Thomond Bridge is presently undergoing remedial works, which commenced on Monday last.
"Limerick City and County Council wishes to extend its deepest sympathies to the families and colleagues of the deceased."
The incident happened around 3.45pm, and according to a source the two men were trapped inside the cage under the water for a number of minutes before rescue divers could reach them.
A third man who had been in the cage at the time managed to free himself while under the surface and swim to safety.
The shocking incident sparked a major emergency operation involving the Shannon-based Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter, Limerick City Fire Service and the Limerick Marine Search and Rescue Service.
"There were three men in a cage doing pointing work on the outside of Thomond Bridge. The cage snapped on a crane system and went into the water," said a source.
"They were all trapped in the cage under the water. One got free and was taken to hospital for observation."
"The other two men were not so fortunate. They were taken from the cage by divers from the Limerick Marine Search and Rescue Service and the swift water rescue swimmers from Limerick Fire Service. They were unconscious."
One of the two is understood to have suffered a cardiac arrest before being brought to hospital.
The two critically injured men were taken from the water and handed immediately to HSE paramedics who were waiting in an ambulance.
Despite their efforts to resuscitate the men at the scene and later again at University Hospital Limerick (UHL), they lost their lives.
The search operation which turned into a recovery operation and took 15 minutes before volunteers with the Limerick Marine Search and Rescue Service were stood down.
The man that got out of the cage was rescued by the marine rescue group down river, wearing his life jacket, after he was carried along with the river's current.
He told the rescue volunteers there were two men trapped in the cage. The men were pronounced dead at UHL shortly before 5pm.
"It's really shocking. It's such an unusual thing to have happened," said a source.
"It's incredibly sad. I can't imagine what these men's families are going to be feeling," they added.
According to a source the three men were wearing life jackets and fall-arresting safety harnesses generally used in line rescues or by anyone working from dangerous heights.
Thomond Bridge has been closed by Gardaí. A number of surrounding streets including Clancy Strand back towards Island Road are also closed.
Gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority are to conduct investigations into the incident.
Remedial works started on the bridge last Monday, and it was a 10-week scheduled job.
The job was subcontracted by Limerick City and County Council to an as-yet unknown firm.
"These men were contract staff. They were specialist workers," said a local authority source.
The works were due to be completed in November.
A source added: "The two men, who have died, were still harnessed into the cage under the water, so it looks like they couldn't get out. It's horrific."