'His eyes just rolled back and foam came out of his mouth . . . then I let him go'
Sole survivor of fishing tragedy tells of desperate struggle to save friend
Published 02/03/2011 | 05:00
THE sole survivor of a fishing tragedy in which three men died yesterday spoke of his desperate but doomed efforts to help save his friends.
American Edward 'Ed' Dziato (46) said one of his friends, Richard Harmann (69), couldn't swim and he tried to help support him in the freezing seas off west Cork last August as they awaited rescue.
"I put one hand under his back while I paddled with the other. After a few minutes he just rolled back, he looked over at me with a look of 'thank you' in his eyes. Then his eyes just rolled back and foam came out of his mouth. I let him go," Mr Dziato told a Cork Coroner's inquest
Two German retirees, Wolfgang 'Mike' Schmidt (69), of Firkeale, Glengarriff, and Wolfgang Schroder (62), of Drumleigh, Bantry, as well as Glengarriff pensioner Mr Harmann (69), drowned when they jumped into the sea after Mr Schmidt's vessel, 'Castaway', suddenly caught fire.
The last desperate message received from Mr Schroder by the Irish Coastguard via mobile phone was: "We have a fire on board. We are near Bere Island. The helm is on fire now. We are near Roancarraig Lighthouse. We are in deep sh**."
The inquest was told that Mr Schmidt had been warned the previous May about potential electrical problems with the vessel.
Speaking after the hearing, Mr Dziato said he was now grateful for every single day he was alive.
"Every day is tough but we will go through it. I think about it every day. Today is a great day to be alive. I will recover but I hope the inquest brings closure to the families," he said.
The two widows, Christine Schroder and Ina Schmidt, both attended yesterday's Bantry inquest along with Mr Harmann's son William.
The four friends had gone fishing off Bantry Bay on August 16 last to celebrate Mr Harmann's upcoming 70th birthday.
Mr Schmidt and Mr Schroder were both retired master mariners who had settled in Glengarriff and Bantry.
The four men enjoyed the best fishing of the season that day and were returning home when they noticed water filling the vessel shortly before 5pm.
Mr Schmidt switched on three electric bilge pumps but a short time later smoke was noticed pouring from the vessel's control panel.
"I noticed the smoke. The insulation (on the wiring) was melting," Mr Dziato explained.
He said Mr Schmidt handed him a fire extinguisher and told him to use it in short bursts.
However, when the fire extinguisher was exhausted the fire immediately roared up again.
Mr Dziato said he wanted to fill buckets with sea water and use them on the fire but both Mr Schmidt and Mr Schroder advised him not to.
Mr Dziato -- who was accompanied to the inquest by his wife Judy -- said the fire spread so quickly that it prevented the four men from gaining access to life vests or the life raft on board.
The only flotation devices left for them were the plastic 'bumpers' used to prevent the vessel from rubbing against the pier.
Mr Dziato said that while both Mr Schmidt and Mr Schroder had been drinking, neither were impaired by it.
Mr Dziato was rescued by the Irish Coastguard's Sikorsky helicopter which was attending to a rescue in nearby Bantry.
The other three men were winched from the sea but pronounced dead when brought ashore at Castletownbere.
Coroner Frank O'Connell was told that Mr Schmidt had brought the 'Castaway' to shipwright John Murphy the previous May for repairs to a leaking fuel tank.
Mr Murphy said he raised concerns he had with Mr Schmidt about the "untidy" electrical wiring system on 'Castaway'.
The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death for all three men.