Ireland’s brave Coast Guard volunteers are a rare breed, driven only by a desire to serve and help and Monday’s tragedy off Clare will be felt like a death in the family.
That’s how Michael O’Regan, a legendary figure in the Irish Coast Guard service who retired last year after a distinguished 50-year career as a volunteer, described the impact of Caitríona Lucas’s death during a search operation.
“My heart is still in the Coast Guard. When I heard about this tragedy, it hit the same as if it was a family member, and that’s how it will be felt in the service,” he said.
He was one of the country’s longest-serving Coast Guard volunteers when he stepped down as head of the Goleen unit in West Cork last year.
A hugely respected figure, not just in the Irish Coast Guard but among Ireland’s emergency services, he saw more than his fair share of heartbreak and tragedy over his half-century of voluntary service, being involved in more than 1,000 call-outs, saving over 50 lives and recovering countless bodies.
He said the first death this week of an Irish Coast Guard volunteer in the line of duty will hit the service, both full-time and volunteer, and the communities around Doolin and Kilkee in particular, very, very, hard.
“Coastal communities are very tight-knit,” said Mr O’Regan. “The sea is our biggest graveyard and these communities are brought up knowing tragedy. Maybe that’s what fosters their sense of service.
“The Coast Guard service is like a family within that family of coastal communities — it’s like one big family. And this is the first tragedy of its kind to hit the Coast Guard.
“These volunteers endanger their lives every time they go out. This woman had given her time to serve, she left her family to go out searching for a missing person, and this happened. It’s just heartbreaking. It breaks my heart to see.”
Mr O’Regan, whose grandfather was in the Coast Guard, recalls going out as a child with his father on coastal training sessions, and being fascinated with the service.
He signed up at the age of 15 and rose through the ranks to become an area officer of the Goleen unit, which patrols one of the most treacherous stretches of coastlines in the country —where Atlantic storms lash steep cliffs and rugged headlands and coves along the Mizen peninsula.
He said Coast Guard volunteers are always aware of the dangers involved when the alarm is raised. But he said that, thanks to a high standard of training and a deep commitment to serve and help, those dangers are put to the back of their minds when their pagers go off.
This was clearly evident on Monday evening when, even as details continued to filter in of Ms Lucas’s death off the west coast, a Coast Guard operation got under way in West Cork.
The alarm was raised at around 9.45pm when a report came in that three children were stranded on Hungry Hill.
The children, aged eight, 10 and 14, had become separated from their parents and ended up cragfast on a ledge near the Mare’s Tail waterfall on the eastern side of Hungry Hill.
Members of Castletownbere Coast Guard responded and the Waterford-based Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 117 provided illumination as the team made their way to the casualties.
The team set up a climbing rig above the children and, assisted by a rescue climber, they were brought to a safer location one by one where they were provided warm clothing and foil blankets.
Members of the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team also responded and helped escort the family — believed to be German tourists — off the mountain. The family was checked by the Castletownbere ambulance personnel and did not require medical treatment, and the operation was stood down at 4.15am.
Mr O’Regan said Coast Guard volunteers are ready to respond to incidents at any time of the day or night.
“For about 40 years, I slept with my pager and phone by the bed,” he said. “When the alarm went off, you never thought. You just jumped out of bed, and went. You just did your job. And that’s the same for every Coast Guard volunteer.
“It takes a special kind of person to volunteer. We’ve had people who came and went. Some didn’t stick with it and would have drifted away. It takes a special breed to stay with it. You have to be dedicated.”
People, he said, like the late Joe Notter who, at the age of 83, was still training with Goleen Coast Guard unit two weeks before his death. Two of Joe’s sons, a nephew and a grandson, followed him into the service.
Mr O’Regan said: “There is always a danger. Every time you go out, you think of and are always aware of the danger. But you have to put that to the back of your mind.
“You don’t go out if things are too dangerous or if there is a risk to life. But there is always an element of danger. And freak accidents can happen. You have to balance that risk. But you can’t be fearful, otherwise you’d never get anywhere.”
Despite the inherent risks of the work they do, Mr O’Regan said the thousands of men and women around the country who volunteer for Coast Guard duty do so out of a desire to serve and to help families in times of difficulty, immense grief, and tragedy.
“When you start a search, you can’t give up,” he said.
“You feel you have to find that missing person one way or the other, to give closure, and some relief to their family. You just keep at it and at it. I’ve been on searches for up to 30 days without a break, and you never think of giving up.”
He recalls meeting the families of people missing at sea who would look to Coast Guard volunteers for help.
“You’d meet these family members every morning during a search and, then in some cases, up to 10 times during the day, giving them updates and information,” said Mr O’Regan.
“They were looking to you for help — I’ve seen it in their eyes — they’re depending on you to find their loved ones.
“You are the only person who can find their loved ones, and they trust you to do it. And that makes you determined to bring them closure.
“You couldn’t walk away from that. And it’s the same with every Coast Guard team member around the country. They want to help the families.”
Mr O’Regan said Coast Guard volunteers do their work thanks to incredible family support — in his own case, his wife, Anne, was often the person who took that first phone call for help and who, in the days before mobile phones, made the first calls to the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Valentia or other emergency services, and who acted as the link point during a search and rescue operation.
But he said the volunteer spirit is at the core of what the Coast Guard units do.
“If you’d ask any of them in the morning would they like to get paid for it, they’d laugh at you,” he said.
“They just want to help, and the satisfaction that comes from the recovery of a body, and the sense of relief that brings to a grieving family — you just couldn’t put words on it.”
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