We had been warned by the crew of Rescue 116 that if an emergency call came through, we would be shown the door. And when the call came, we were flying over Wicklow’s Lough Dan.
The Irish Independent was last week granted a chance to see a day in the life of the Rescue 116 crew from CHC Dublin search and rescue on a practice flight.
But as Ireland basked in a heatwave, the crew was alerted to a young man in trouble, and close to drowning, at Sutton’s Burrow Beach.
We were deposited on the shore of picturesque Lough Dan as Rescue 116 headed north where they saved the man's life.
However, while this reporter got her bearings, the Byrne family – father Michael, daughter Mary and grandson Kayden (2), along with Danielle Kenny (9) – happened along.
Showing that the work of the Irish Coast Guard reaches into communities across Ireland, Michael’s sister, Imelda, whom we also met, told how her mother’s life was saved by a Coast Guard helicopter crew.
A decade ago, Imelda’s mother suffered an aortic aneurysm which burst. She became very ill, a frightening situation in such an isolated area. The family rang for an ambulance and the Irish Coast Guard helicopter was despatched to the house.
Later, doctors told the family their mother might not have survived if she had had to travel by road.
“Ten minutes later she was in Vincent’s Hospital,” Imelda explained. “They did the operation an hour later.
“They said she only had a 20pc chance of coming through the operation, but thankfully she lived for another eight or nine years.”
We were later reunited with the crew of Rescue 116 – aircraft engineers Tommy Fitzsimmons and James Duffy, Captain Sid Lawrence, co-pilot Kieran Parker, winchman Derek Everitt, and winch operator Tommy Gannon.
Derek, who is from Drogheda, Co Louth, and has over 24 years experience in the field, said some predictability of how busy they will be on a given day comes with the weather, with more emergencies in good and bad weather, but all in all, it is a very unpredictable job. He explained what it is like to undertake a rescue on a packed beach.
“So there are kids everywhere, there are families walking around and I’m just trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who,” he said.
“And we might have to do two orbits to warn people what we’re doing: the last thing you want to do is go into a situation and cause more problems.”
All winchmen and winch operators are paramedics.
“You have to be serious about what you do,” Derek said.
“So when we go to work, we go to work.”
Things can get extremely serious at the drop of a hat, as we were reminded.
“When you left the aircraft today, it was a completely different environment.”
In March 2017, Rescue 116 crew members Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith tragically died when their helicopter crashed near Blacksod in Co Mayo.
Capt Lawrence said that four years on, the legacy of that tragedy continued to affect him and his team. It had given them a clear realisation of what it is they actually do.
Derek said the 2017 crash had changed the perspective of the crew, and has highlighted among the public the importance of the work they do.
Asked if he ever gets scared undertaking rescue missions, he replies: “No”.
Clearly, there is no room for fear in this line of work.
This article was edited on July 26, 2021