Search teams battle the elements in struggle to reclaim crew's remainsDivers hope to return the bodies of the missing Coast Guard crewmen in the coming days
Eight days into the search for the three missing crew members of Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue 116, the weather changed, bringing with it a welcome ray of hope for their families.
Shortly after daybreak last Wednesday, the Irish Lights ship, Granuaile, took up position near Blackrock Island, off the north Mayo coast, and dispatched a robot into the depths on a reconnaissance mission, the first of several operations in recent days.
Its official title is "remotely operated vehicle" but it is known as an ROV, nicknamed the John Holland 1, in honour of the Clare man who designed the first commercially successful submarine. Operated by the Marine Institute of Ireland, it is a sophisticated piece of equipment. It is kitted out with cameras, powerful lights and has five "function manipulators" such as a cutting function, which are intended to allow it take samples from the sea floor.
On this occasion, John Holland's role was exploratory. It was lowered 40 metres down into the sea, some 50 miles from Black Rock, the lighthouse atop a tall, sheer rocky outcrop where the Rescue 116 went down around 1am on Tuesday, March 15.
Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, the pilot, was the only one of the four crew to be recovered. Her colleagues, Captain Mark Duffy, winchman Ciaran Smith, and winch operator, Paul Ormsby, are missing.
The Navy and Irish Coast Guard and the scientists from the Marine Institute and the others involved in the massive sea and coastal search were on the Granuaile as the ROV relayed back its images from the sea floor.
There it was, the fuselage of Rescue 116, mangled but partially intact, upended on the sea bed, and exposed to the strong currents and tides that ripped through the channel in which it lay.
The cockpit was visible, and inside it, the body of one of the missing crew members was also discernible. It was not possible to identify the man, but his position close to the controls suggested that it could be Captain Mark Duffy, co-pilot of Rescue 116, experienced airman, father and husband, according to local sources.
The ROV's cameras could not reach other parts of the wreckage. The winchman, Ciaran Smith, and winch operator Paul Ormsby, would have been in the body of the helicopter.
But there was no way of confirming that they were there, although the hope is that they were somewhere with the wreckage.
Read more: Second crew member of Rescue 116 is located
As it transpired, relatives of the missing crewmen were on the LE Eithne, the Naval patrol ship, in the waters near Blackrock Island when word of the breakthrough came. They were briefed on what on had been discovered, and they prayed for all four crew members that were on board.
Shortly afterwards, heavy winds whipped up the sea, the ROV was recalled and the families and the rescue mission returned to shore.
Later that evening, at a press briefing, the search teams hailed the discovery of the main fuselage. The images of a body in the wreckage was deemed too sensitive to share.
It was last Friday before the rescue mission would return to the waters of Blackrock Island. The dive operation took meticulous planning, involving teams of 12 divers from both the Navy and Gardai. The purpose was to explore the wreckage, to determine how best the body of the crewman could be brought ashore, and whether it was possible to locate the others.
In seas surging with currents and tides, safety was the priority. They descended in relays in teams of four, spending 40 to 45 minutes in the water, most of that spent ascending or descending the 37 meters to the sea floor.
The divers recovered the blackbox - having already been instructed on where they would find it in the wreckage in a pre-dive planning session. But the debris and limited visibility restricted their vision to two to three metres.
The body of the crewman remained difficult to access in the wreckage, his equipment and flying gear making it difficult to identify him. That wasn't helped by their visibility of two to three metres.
Read more: The heroes who put their lives on the line
Late last Friday night, as the search teams confirmed at a press briefing, that a body had indeed been located in the wreckage. But they could not, and still have not, confirmed who it is.
Searches continued yesterday, the sea search hampered again by weather but with teams continuing to walk the coast and the shore, in search of debris.
Today, the search teams are hoping to send divers down again, to return the body of the crew man to his family, and to locate his two colleagues.
The operation will require meticulous planning, to decide how best to remove him safely.
"Everything is down to the weather. If the swell moderates, diving is possible," said a source on the search team.
As for the wreckage, the Air Accident Investigation Unit confirmed last Monday that the helicopter went down off Blackrock after its tail struck rocks. There appear to be no further clues as to why that happened.
"The helicopter is down there for 11 days. There is a huge movement of water there that will throw it around like a rag doll. The damage caused will have no relevance to the impact of the accident," said one source.
There has been criticism of Air Corps for not providing cover for a rescue mission of a fisherman off the Mayo Coast, which is why Rescue 116 was called out in its place. This weekend, the Defence Forces released figures confirming that the Irish Coast Guard asked the Air Corps three times for "top cover" in 2016 but was turned down because personnel were not available. The same year, it was unable to respond to 13 Air Ambulance requests.
Speaking at a press briefing last night, Inspector Gary Walsh, from the Mayo garda division, said: "The ROV has been in the water on different occasions but it's still not possible to free the trapped individual in the aircraft.
"The site scan is continuing and there's an additional piece of equipment out there, it's an underwater camera that's being used to scan the broader site in the search for the missing two crew members.
"No dive will take place today due to the sea swell but it is hoped that dives can take place tomorrow [Sunday].
"The ROV has been doing most of the work today. At the moment the Supt, Chief Supt and all the relevant command personnel from the various agencies are aboard the Granuaile, they're having a command meeting to assess what the best approach is between now and darkness and to see what work the ROV can do to free the trapped individual on board.
"It's being assessed all the time; the garda water unit hope to get down. They've done preparatory dives- they're ready to go if they get a window of opportunity.
"They're in a position to dive on the wreck if they get a window of opportunity to do it. The navy will maintain their current position and the garda water unit is hoping to do a wider sweep in the search for the other two.
"The garda water unit have the exact same capabilities as the navy divers.
"They're hoping there'll be less of a sea swell (tomorrow). There's a three-metre swell at the moment, which isn't favourable at all."
(Additional reporting by Robin Schiller)