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Sunday 25 June 2017

Tranquillity of sea belies the fevered operation beneath waves

Family liaison officer Garda Sinéad Barrett brings flowers to Blacksod Pier as the search continues for the Rescue 116 crew Photo: Steve Humphreys
Family liaison officer Garda Sinéad Barrett brings flowers to Blacksod Pier as the search continues for the Rescue 116 crew Photo: Steve Humphreys
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Usually the venue for puppet shows, pilates classes and local community gatherings, Halla Naomh Bhreandáin in Eachléim village is a hive of activity.

A team of bustling volunteers led by Annette Gallagher has been serving up gigantic servings of bacon and cabbage, chicken curry and cakes to coast guards, naval officers, gardaí and media.

A tiny donation box is tucked away in the corner but local people are quietly funding this mission themselves and the volunteers, a team of Irish mammies, are fierce in their generosity. Nobody leaves hungry.

It is a day of jewel-like beauty and unusual stillness on the Mullet peninsula, with a lark piping overhead while the sea glittered a blinding silver.

The tranquillity belies the fevered operation out at sea, where divers seek again and again, in the precious nine minutes allotted to them for safety reasons, at the bottom of the ocean to search for the remains of the missing crew of Rescue 116.

Captain Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith have now been lost for 11 days and the strain on their families is unimaginable.

Throughout the day, family members arrive at the holiday home close to Blacksod Lighthouse which has been put at their disposal.

Though conditions are "next to ideal," the diving remains a "delicate and dangerous operation for the divers" stresses Derek Flanagan, from the Coast Guard service at Malin Head.

Family members arrive at Blacksod Pier Photo: Steve Humphreys
Family members arrive at Blacksod Pier Photo: Steve Humphreys

It is quite a deep dive, some 40m deep, and the Irish Lights vessel, the Granuaile, stands by in close proximity in case of any incident because there is a recompression chamber on board.

"It's really important all the ducks are lined up," he says.

The divers work in a buddy system in pairs and can remain below for only nine minutes for safety reasons.

They are directed to the exact site by an 'umbilical line' which also acts as an airline.

Read More: Divers prepare to examine R116 wreckage after weather breaks

"They do as much work as they can before the next two divers take over, continuing exactly from where the other two left off," explains Mr Flanagan, adding: "We don't waste time."

It is a slow process for safety reasons and they make the best of a small period of time, he explains.

No nets are put down around the fuselage because of the hazard of dangerous tangles for the divers and a 5km exclusion zone around Blackrock has been put in place.

Meanwhile, amid this painstaking operation, the families' agonised wait continues.

By mid-afternoon, a garda liaison officer arrives at the house clutching two bouquets of flowers gifted by a sympathetic donor.

"It's a terrible tragedy," whispers an elderly man as he gazes out at the sea, which for the first time since the accident, lies at peace.

A Coast Guard boat searches the coastline around Blacksod Picture: Collins
A Coast Guard boat searches the coastline around Blacksod Picture: Collins

A local pisheog has it that after an accident at sea, there will be six days of bad weather.

But this has been stretched considerably.

During the week, heavy rain, winds and even hailstones hampered the recovery operation and caused further anguish for the heartbroken families of the crew.

Read More: The heroes who put their lives on the line

As a fishing community, local lore is greatly focused on the sea.

Farther up the coast stand the ruins of St Deirbhile's church. Legend has it that if you can squeeze through the narrow west window three times, you will never die from drowning.

At the clifftop, local people watch the faraway recovery operation out at Black Rock, some 10km off shore but, for once, not shrouded in mist.

RNLI lifeboat volunteers carry out a visual search of the coastline.

While an online app shows the sweep far out at sea being conducted by the Granuaile, with little triangles going back and forward, covering every square metre.

By evening comes crucial news. The black box recorder has been found.

"We're happy to announce the positive recovery of the data recorder at 16.30 today from the seabed just off Blackrock," says Jurgen Whyte of the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU).

Mindful of the families' pain, he explains how they had to take it when they got it because they might not get the chance again.

"As we said all along the important thing is that we get access to the cockpit voice recorder and the flight recorder," he says. The priority has always been to recover the victims and if the divers happen to come across the recorder they will take the recorder. Because if we see it, we must take it because we can't leave it behind."

Last Monday, the AAIU investigators confirmed that a tail section of the helicopter recovered showed signs of contact with rock on the western side of Black Rock.

At a briefing on Thursday night, Supt Healy predicted that yesterday would be a big step forward," and said "the hope is that the three men will be in or near the wreckage.

Mr Whyte explains that a preliminary report would be published by the AAIU within 30 days as part of international requirements which would "identify the basic facts as we know them", he says.

In the meantime, the families and search teams hold out hope that the remains of the three men will soon be found.

Irish Independent

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