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Helpline 'inundated' with calls of distress

A HELPLINE to assist the estimated 15,000 Irish citizens stranded overseas was "inundated" with calls yesterday from distressed holidaymakers and their families.

Up to 1,500 cases were expected to have been handled by the Consular Crisis Centre by 10 last night.

A spokesman for the centre, which is operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the fallout from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was the biggest operation the crisis centre has had to handle.

Extra volunteer staff from throughout the department were called on to help with the deluge of calls from people marooned across the world.

"After every news bulletin, we get an extra surge when people see the helpline number," the spokesman said.

A handful of people have arrived at the department in person, mainly Irish citizens who live abroad and are anxious to get home. Most calls are from those stuck in holiday destinations, who are now facing into another week away.

"They are starting to get very worried and are trying to get back to jobs and family," he said.

One of the call handlers also reported a significant number of calls from citizens abroad with chronic conditions who are running out of their medication or are unsure how to access fresh supplies in a foreign country. A large number of those calling the centre are stuck in mainland Spain or on one of the Canary Islands where there is no possibility of getting back until flights resume.

"They are being told they won't get a flight until early May. Some people were planning to be away from Thursday to Saturday and did not realise how much it was going to cost them," the handler said.

Another difficult situation was imposed on a teacher who had taken a theatre group of Wexford teenagers to Romania. The teacher was struggling to get everyone home overland while parents waited anxiously at home.

The crisis centre remained open until 10 last night and is expected to open from 9am to 10pm today. The helpline number is 01 4082999.

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