A tragic and inconceivable chain of events resulted in the loss of four lives off the Co Mayo coast, writes Eavan Murray
9.15pm – Injury at sea
Shortly after 9.15pm on March 13, 2017, the King’s Cross trawler was on the northern edge of Porcupine Bank when Captain William Buchan told his crew to haul in the net.
It was a perfectly normal request of his crew. However, it set off a chain of events so tragic and inconceivable that it still haunts all those involved in the R116 tragedy more than five years later.
Fisherman James John Strachan was assigned to one side of the vessel.
While attempting to clear a section of netting that had become trapped, his right hand became entangled.
Strachan, who was wearing gloves, tried desperately to free himself, but half his thumb was crushed and amputated above the knuckle by a thick rope.
Shocked and bleeding, Strachan was moved to a locker room and given first aid.
Capt Buchan placed the severed thumb into a freezer.
9.39pm – A call for help
Capt Buchan contacted Ian Scott, the Coast Guard radio operator at Malin Head Marine Rescue Sub Centre (MRSC).
Mr Scott listened with concern as Capt Buchan detailed his crewman’s condition.
Immediately after establishing the vessel’s position, Mr Scott said, “It is within range of our helicopter, and he will come and get your man off the boat.”
Capt Buchan told Mr Scott they had managed to stem the bleeding.
9.42pm – Rescue launched
MRSC (Marine Rescue Sub-Centre) Malin contacted the Sligo Search and Rescue (SAR) duty pilot and tasked the Sligo-based helicopter R118 with airlifting the injured crewman to hospital.
Mr Scott then transferred Capt Buchan’s call to Dr Mai Nguyen, an emergency department registrar in Cork University Hospital.
From her memory of the incident, Dr Nguyen said she felt the dispatch of the Sligo- based R118 Coast Guard helicopter “was probably an excessive thing” but that it was not her call.
She told the inquest this week: “I was a first-year resident. I did not have the power to stop a helicopter making that journey.
“I personally felt the injury was minor in nature and wouldn’t have sent the Coast Guard out because the thumb couldn’t have been saved.”
The Air Accident Investigation Unit report into the crash found that procedures governing a Coast Guard helicopter dispatching were not conducted in sequence.
10.10pm – Top Cover
At 22.10, after consulting with the Dublin-based commander of R116, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, who was at home, the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Dublin tasked R116 crew members – co-pilot Captain Mark Duffy and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith – to provide ‘top cover’ (protective, back-up cover) for R118.
As she drove to Dublin Airport, Capt Fitzpatrick called the Sligo SAR Base from her car and spoke to the winch operator of R118.
The Sligo winch operator said he advised her that they were heading offshore and that he assumed R116 would route to Blacksod to refuel.
One of the Dublin-based engineers later recalled Capt Fitzpatrick saying weather conditions in Blacksod were probably poor and that the helicopter would route to Sligo.
11.02pm – R116 takes off
At 23.11, the crew contacted R118, who said they were about to land in Blacksod and that “conditions at the pad are fine – kind of some low cloud approximately five hundred feet.”
At 23.20, R116 flight crew conducted fuel calculations to determine whether or not there was a time/fuel advantage in landing at Blacksod to refuel instead of Sligo.
They elected to change course. At 00.09, Blacksod helipad spoke to R116 and said cloud cover was between 300ft and 500ft.
Capt Fitzpatrick asked the rear Crew of R116 to request wind direction, speed and visibility.
The reply came that wind was west-south-west at 25-33 knots, and the visibility was two nautical miles.
12.28am – Over Blacksod Bay
The helicopter crossed the Mayo coast and flew out over Blacksod Bay. At 00.34, R116 began the descent.
Capt Fitzpatrick asked the co-pilot Mark Duffy to “confirm we’re clear ahead on radar and EGPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System)”.
He responded, “You are clear ahead on 10-mile range.”
R116 headed for Blacksod lighthouse. As it approached from the west on a flight path known to aviators as APBSS, Blackrock Island lay directly in its path.
The island’s height was not marked on maps contained in the helicopter’s EGPWS.
12.45am – ‘Altitude, Altitude’
At 00.43, Captain Fitzpatrick was completing the final item of the ‘before landing’ checklist; she commented that she was visual with the sea’s surface.
At 00.45, an automatic callout rang out in the aircraft: “Altitude, Altitude”.
Winchman Ciarán Smith announced he had detected an island on the infrared camera.
R116 was about 0.3 nautical miles from it, travelling at a ground speed of 90 knots.
He immediately urged a change of heading, telling the crew: “Looking at an island just in, directly ahead now guys, you want to come right.”
The report said the crew was in the process of making the change when the urgency of the situation became clear to the winchman.
Eleven seconds after his initial warning, he can be heard on the flight recording: “Come right now, come right, COME RIGHT.”
Seconds later, the R116 pitched up rapidly and rolled to the right.
12.46am – Crash at Blackrock
At 00.46:08, R116 struck at the western end of Blackrock and impacted with the sea.
The last audible comment recorded was that of Capt Duffy saying, “We’re gone.”