Rescue 116 families 'are looking at every boat that comes in and wondering'
Stricken families sit and wait amid such great pain and anguish, writes Nicola Anderson
Inside a small white holiday cottage near Blacksod lighthouse, the stricken families sat and waited amid such great pain and anguish that it seemed an intolerable burden.
One of the youngest children had arrived clutching a toy rabbit.
Local women from the heritage centre down the road dropped in trays of sandwiches to the family in a bid to do something to help them, to make the process even fractionally more bearable. Outside, the calmness of the bay belied the heaving open seas at the other side of the Erris Peninsula, where the search operation was being carried out close to the hulking mound of the Blackrock Lighthouse barely visible in the mist some eight miles off the coast.
Even from that distance, white waves could be seen crashing at the base of the rocks. Even less visible was the lighthouse itself, perched on top of the craggy mountain rising out of the ocean - one of the most remote lighthouses in the country and a dangerous place for boats to remain docked because of the treacherous swells.
For the families of chief pilot Mark Duffy, and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith, the wait was to continue.
Nobody was more aware of the pain they were going through than the Coast Guard service themselves - their second family.
The husband of the late Caitríona Lucas travelled to Blacksod to be there in solidarity.
It is little over six months ago that Bernard Lucas lost his wife and mother of their two children during a Coast Guard search operation for a missing man off the Kilkee coast of west Clare.
Mr Lucas remains an active member of the Doolin unit of the Irish Coast Guard, where he shared many missions with Caitríona, who became the first volunteer member of the Coast Guard to die on active duty.
Yesterday, Mr Lucas made the 300-mile round trip from his north Clare home to help in the shoreline search as part of the overall effort to find the crew. Mr Lucas said that the loss of the four from Rescue 116 "is another terrible blow" to the Irish Coast Guard.
"It was just six months and two days after what happened before. It is unbelievable, unbelievable. The rescue services are in shock," he said.
Mr Lucas said that Caitríona had worked with Capt Dara Fitzpatrick while the helicopter pilot was based at Waterford airport.
He said that Caitríona would have trained dogs with Capt Fitzpatrick on helicopter familiarisation in Waterford.
"Caitríona found Capt Fitzpatrick to be a lovely person, full of life and always willing to help," he added.
Mr Lucas said that members of the Irish Coast Guard service "are all one big family". "I just came up on my own and to be here in solidarity with the families and the rest of the crew. I just want to be here and help out anyway I can."
Asked what words of comfort he could offer to the crew's families, Mr Lucas said: "Just to know that everyone is there for them and the support they will receive from everybody will hopefully try to get them through this.
"They will receive an awful lot of support. You know exactly what they are going through. It is difficult, very difficult."
Gerard O'Flynn, the search and rescue operations manager with the Irish Coast Guard, added that it was "enormously difficult for the families". "They're looking at every boat coming in and wondering if it's something," he said, in a bid to put in words the great emptiness and helplessness the families were experiencing.
"But they want hard information and not clutching at straws."
The operation was resumed at first light, with the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Róisín having combed the seas all through the night. They had been joined by the Celtic Voyager, the vessel from the Marine Institute with its specialised sonar search capabilities.
"What it's doing is basically mapping the sea bed," Mr O'Flynn said.
By evening time, a breakthrough came for the remaining families. A "significant" finding of a homing beacon from the black box of the helicopter had been found.
"We feel like we are the lucky ones," said Niamh Fitzpatrick, the devastated sister of brave Captain Dara Fitzpatrick (45), who had been quickly found in the aftermath of the accident in the early hours of Tuesday night. "At least we have her and can hold her."
She and her parents Mary and John had spent the night at the mortuary because they could not bear to leave her.
Finally, yesterday at about 2pm, Dara was released to them. A Garda escort eased their way on the long road back to Dublin.