Tuesday 16 January 2018

'It was fear with a capital F': Sisters of Rescue R116 crew describe aftermath of the tragedy

Two of the crew of Rescue 116: (left to right) Dara Fitzpatrick and Ciaran Smith
Two of the crew of Rescue 116: (left to right) Dara Fitzpatrick and Ciaran Smith
Missing: Ciaran Smith

Rebecca Lumley

A woman whose brother is missing at sea described the "utter devastation" at the thought of never finding his body.

Orla Smith is the sister of Irish Coast Guard wincher Ciarán Smith, whose body was never recovered following a tragic helicopter accident earlier this year. Four crew members were killed when their helicopter plunged into the sea off the coast of Mayo, in a rescue attempt that went horribly wrong.

Ms Smith said that while she will "have hope" of finding him for "as long as I live", she has been forced to accept that his body may never be found.

Speaking to Marian Finucane on RTE Radio One, she said: "When we went out to look for Ciarán, we were mounting the single biggest sea search in the history of the Irish state. It helped me to realise that maybe we won’t get him home, maybe (the sea) would be his final resting place. And I’m okay with that.

"He is in no way not with us, he’s all around us. He’s in his three girls, most definitely. And that gives us such strength and it keeps us going but there is still the motivation in me to get his body and put him in a place that we can visit and say our thoughts. I want him home for him. Ciaran was a homebody, he loved being at home."

She was joined on air by Niamh Fitzpatrick, the sister of Dara Fitzpatrick, who was also killed when the Rescue 116 helicopter crash landed. She described the terror of learning that her sister was missing.

Missing: Ciaran Smith
Missing: Ciaran Smith

"My phone went and it was my sister and she just said ‘two guys are at the house from CHC and they say the helicopter has gone down’.

"The only way I can describe it is that it was fear with a capital F. You know when you see somebody’s face and not only their face but every cell of their body screams terror. And I just kept asking them ‘do you know’ because there was the fear was that they were trying to protect us. But they honestly didn’t know."

Ms Fitzpatrick discovered that her sister was dead just a few hours later. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was the first crew member to be recovered from the sea, followed by co-pilot Mark Duffy. Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby remain missing.

Ms Fitzpatrick said an "eerie sense of the unreal" came over her when she heard the devastating news.

TRIBUTES: Coast Guard hero Dara Fitzpatrick Picture: Collins
TRIBUTES: Coast Guard hero Dara Fitzpatrick Picture: Collins

"It’s as if you’re on a railway crossing in a car that’s stuck across the crossing, it won’t move, and we’re looking down the track. And down the track I can see a train coming.

"That moment when the two guys from CHC landed in the kitchen... In that kitchen they stood there and told us that the body was Dara’s. That’s when the train hit," she said.

Ms Smith said she experienced similar feelings of disbelief, as time slipped away and her brother's safe return became less likely.

"As the day went on, I realised that he had been in the water for quite some time and I realised that no, even my big brother wasn’t going to get through this

"Your head goes through so many different things. You’re thinking about the accident, you’re thinking about whether or not they’re going to find him, you’re thinking about whether or not he’s going to be alive, you’re thinking about if he’s not alive, what do we do. And it’s difficult," she said.

While the tragedy gripped the country as it unfolded in March, it was also subject to royal attention.

"Rescue 116 was in RAF Valley after a mission and they were at the base at the time. They were just sitting in the crew room hanging out and Prince William walked in, because he was based there at the time. And he looked at them all and said 'what are you doing here?'" Ms Fitzpatrick said.

"So Paul Ormsby, quick as you like, said 'we're invading you' and Prince William said 'you can have it.' So great camaraderie. Also the families got a letter from Prince William, just from one search and rescue professional to another to express condolences."

A preliminary report into the accident was published by the Air Accident Investigation Unit in April, which stated that the navigational route used by the crew may have been lacking important information. The helicopter reportedly "pitched up" as it started its descent, before plunging into the sea.

The reason for the crew's travel has also been called into question, as the fisherman they were supposed to be winching to safety had not suffered life-threatening injuries.

Both women said they avoided focusing on such details.

"We say about the dead that they must rest in peace, but my feeling is with living, we have to live in peace as well. They all fought for their lives and we have our lives and we must live in peace. Is it useful to focus on blame?" Ms Fitzpatrick said.

"Our job is not to blame, but to learn to live without our loved ones."

Ms Smith added that no burden should be placed upon the fisherman, who called for assistance before the accident took place.

The sisters also took the opportunity to thank members of the local community for their support.

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