Mayhem at the airshow
TENS of thousands of people watched in horror yesterday as disaster struck at a Galway airshow.
Three people were injured when a door fell off a helicopter and hurtled at speed to the ground shortly after the craft had taken off at the Salthill Airshow.
Both gardai and the Irish Aviation Authority launched separate investigations last night as the injured, a Polish man and two Irish women were being treated at University College Hospital in Galway.
The British Army helicopter had just become airborne towards the end of the show - the biggest free air spectacular in Europe - attended by a crowd estimated at 80,000.
The helicopter was about 150 feet above the cheering crowd lined along Salthill promenade and on the beach below when disaster struck. As the door hurtled earthwards, the terrified crowd had virtually no time to react and the door hit a number of people.
Gardai and a Civil Defence team rushed to the injured and two ambulances were also on the scene within minutes.
The three people who were injured were treated on the beach, apparently suffering from back and neck injuries as well as shock. All three were removed to hospital where their condition was last night described as stable.
The helicopter immediately returned to the scene and the crew was helping gardai with their inquiries last night.
The scene was being preserved for a full examination by a Garda technical team.
A spokesman at Salthill Garda station confirmed that a Garda investigation was under way into all the circumstances of the accident.
"Fortunately, all the emergency services were at hand and could respond immediately", the spokesman said.
The helicopter was later removed to Galway Airport at Carnmore where it was expected to undergo a full technical examination.
A separate investigation is to be carried out by the Irish Aviation Authority. The helicopter had spent the day parked on the ground at Salthill Park alongside other aircraft which were on public display as part of the big Salthill show.
Minutes before the accident, the crack US Air Force aerobatics team, Thunderbirds had thrilled the crowd with a spectacular display of formation flying.
Crowds estimated at 70,000 to 80,000 lined the coast from Galway city to Spiddal to view the three-hour display involving some of the world's leading pilots.
Organisers had been expecting a repeat of last year's turnout of 100,000, but an unsettled weather forecast was borne out when heavy showers interrupted the afternoon's entertainment and sent families scrambling for cover.
But in between the spills of rain there was no shortage of thrills by some of the world's most renowned high-speed aircraft.
On the ground, the crowds were allowed get up close and personal with a British Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, a Royal Netherlands Air Force AB412 and a range of Irish army weaponry and machinery.
In Galway Bay a flotilla of craft, including a naval corvette, provided the backdrop for the air spectacular.
But the ear-splitting arrival of the Thunderbirds in their F16 fighter jets, making their first Irish appearance, provided the undoubted highlight at the finale of the show.
US Ambassador, Thomas C Foley had hosted a thronged reception for the Thunderbirds commemorating the 60th anniversary of the US Air Force, in Salthill at the weekend.
Such was the demand for invitations to the event that the US Embassy had to change the venue to a larger space.
The event had been picketed by anti-war protesters who held a vigil outside the venue which was followed up with two further vigils outside Galway Cathedral and Salthill parish church over the weekend.
The opposition to the air show culminated in the release of 99 red balloons at a peace rally organised by the Galway Alliance Against War just hours before the big show.
Last year, gardai refused to allow the balloons to be released and burst all of them, but this time the Garda presence was far more discreet.
A crowd of about 200, including the new Mayor of Galway, Cllr Tom Costello and four other members of the City Council attended the protest event.
Organiser Niall Farrell said that the 99 balloons had to be blown up in secret and distributed in secret because of fear that the gardai would again burst them. But the air show was strongly defended by Deputy Mayor, Cllr Padraic Conneely.
Speaking at the air show later, Cllr Conneely said it was one of the biggest free festivals in the country.
"Great credit is due to the organisers for bringing in such professional aviation performers as the Thunderbirds and giving people the opportunity to see them display their skill."