Sunday 18 February 2018

Crews searching for missing Coast Guard helicopter hoping for weather window

Enda Kenny returns after visiting the LE Eithne, as the search continues for the missing rescue helicopter
Enda Kenny returns after visiting the LE Eithne, as the search continues for the missing rescue helicopter
The Blacksod Lighthouse, Co Mayo, where the search is taking place.

Search teams looking for three crewmen from an Irish Coast Guard helicopter that crashed into the Atlantic are hoping for a weather window on Wednesday or Thursday to examine the seabed.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited the mission at Blacksod, Co Mayo, and said the families of the crew need answers as it emerged a submersible vehicle or divers could be sent into the 40m deep ocean later in the week.

There is a possible brief window on Monday evening or Tuesday before the weather worsens for 24 hours then picks up again.

"What we need now to find out here is what happened," Mr Kenny said.

"There are four families involved in this. They need to know, obviously to bring closure to this, but also in respect of the service itself and the facilities that are provided, to find out the actual facts of how this tragedy occurred."

A 100m by 100m zone of ocean beside Blackrock Lighthouse, about 13km offshore, was scanned over the weekend using sonar.

The site is where the Dublin-based Rescue 116 aircraft is believed to lie after crashing without warning last Tuesday morning. It was returning to refuel at Blacksod after supporting a rescue mission 240km out in the Atlantic.

The area was mapped and cleared for t he Irish Lights vessel, the Granuaile, to manoeuvre into position alongside the Irish Naval Service ship LE Eithne when a wide enough weather window clears.

Signals are still being emitted from the Sikorsky S92's black box, Irish Coast Guard spokesman Declan Geoghegan said.

"We might get a little window this evening or tomorrow, just for a few hours," he said.

"We've been building up a picture of the seabed and surroundings at Blackrock with a view to having the first dive or sending down a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

"The first opportunity of a break - there might be a window in the next 48 hours - we will move. We are looking at the weather picking up on Wednesday and Thursday."

The prospects of a dive emerged as the Taoiseach was taken out to sea and boarded the LE Eithne to be briefed on the operation.

The Granuaile is in the area, ready to deploy. It has a heavy-lifting crane as well as dynamic positioning technology, which allows it to remain in the same spot on the surface - much like an aircraft would hover - so divers or remote operated vehicles can be put into the ocean to search 40m below.

The underwater terrain, part of the lighthouse rock and dangerous underwater currents in the area are adding to difficulties.

It could take three hours to have the LE Eithne and Granuaile co-ordinate an ROV launch with the Marine Institute or send down divers, but s wells need to be below three metres and currents less than seven knots for divers.

While search teams are confident they are looking in the right area for the black box, they will not know if it remains attached to the missing helicopter fuselage, or if the fuselage remains intact, until divers or underwater vehicles are deployed.

Some wreckage was found in the initial searches.

It is hoped the black box recorder - fitted behind the cockpit seats - is still attached to the bulk of the helicopter wreckage, or near it, and that the three missing crewmen will be inside.

Dive teams will also be considering the nature of going down into such deep water - using mixed gas, an umbilical cable air feed or saturated dive.

The funeral took place on Saturday for Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, 45 -the only one of the four crew recovered from the ocean so far.

The mother-of-one was remembered as a brave hero, an adoring mother and a champion of the underdog during a packed service at St Patrick's Church, Glencullen, in the Dublin mountains.

The other crew members - Captain Mark Duffy, Winchman Ciaran Smith and Winch Operator Paul Ormsby - remain missing.

The Dublin-based helicopter crew was providing cover for another Coast Guard helicopter involved in an early-morning evacuation of a crewman around 240km off the west coast.

It had flown directly to the scene from the Irish capital, travelled around 16km out to sea, then turned back towards land to refuel.

There was no indication of any danger moments before it vanished, with the crew's final transmission: "Shortly landing at Blacksod."

Press Association

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