Tuesday 20 March 2018

'Nobody thinks about them until you need them yourself' - The heroes who put their lives on the line

The tragic loss of four Coast Guard crew in Mayo has shocked communities across ­Ireland, and reminded us just how ­precarious life can be for search-and-rescue volunteers.

Mountain and cave rescue specialist John Kavanagh, who is a member of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, near the Scalp in Dublin Mountains. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Mountain and cave rescue specialist John Kavanagh, who is a member of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, near the Scalp in Dublin Mountains. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is a tradition dating back more than a century. When bodies are lost at sea, coastal communities show their respect by leaving lighted candles on their windowsills.

For more than a week, they have been doing just that in the fishing villages around Blacksod in Mayo. It is a small gesture to show solidarity with those who risk their lives on the water and to acknowledge the devastating power of the Atlantic Ocean.

The deaths of four Coast Guard helicopter crew — Dara Fitzpatrick, Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy and Ciarán Smith — have reverberated across the country, but especially in those places that hug the coast.

The distinctive orange and white Coast Guard choppers are a common and reassuring sight — and the loss of Rescue 116 is felt sharply.

This tragedy — and that last summer of Caitríona Lucas, a Coast Guard crew member based in Doolin, Co Clare — highlights the precarious situations search and rescue volunteers can find themselves in. Although every precaution is taken, these men and women risk their lives in order to save others.

“Nobody thinks about them until you need them yourself,” says Ray Doyle, a bus driver from Mallow, Co Cork. “I owe my life to the RNLI. I was just minutes from drowning when they saved me.”

The 44-year-old father-of-four had been kayaking alone in the sea near the beach at Youghal last month when his craft capsized. “I had been momentarily distracted and a small ripple toppled the kayak over,” he says. “I didn’t have enough upper body strength to get back into it and when I tried to swim to shore, I seemed to keep getting pushed out to sea. The panic set in then and I started to roar and shout but nobody seemed to hear me.”

Luckily, his distress was spotted by a couple on the beach and the lifeboat was called. “Just before they got to me, when I had no idea they were on the way, I had resigned myself to the thought that I was about to die. It was a strange feeling of calm, but the rescuers told me that that was a sign that my body had started to shut down.”

(Clockwise from top left): Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby
(Clockwise from top left): Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby

Such a rescue mission was about as simple as it gets for the RNLI — the Royal National Lifeboat Institute — but often such volunteers face very dangerous conditions — whether it’s on land or sea.

“I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never felt fear,” says one lifeboat volunteer, based on the south coast.

“There have been times where we’ve been out in really bad conditions and you’re in a small boat looking out at enormous waves. You know you’ve been very well trained, and you know you’ve got great colleagues and the best equipment, but every now and again there’s that feeling of ‘what am I doing out here?’

“It’s a conversation I’ve had with others and they feel it too, especially those who have young children.

“It’s a bit like someone who’s used to flying and has no fear of it but gets the jitters when they’re caught up in bad turbulence. But the feeling evaporates when you have a successful mission and you know that you’ll be out there again the next time.”

RTÉ’s south-east correspondent Damien Tiernan has long been fascinated by those who work the sea and the brave volunteers who help keep them — and us — safe. His book, Souls of the Sea, written about a series of fishing tragedies that hit the Dunmore East community in January 2007, honoured both.

Local coastguard members at the vigil in Blackrock
Local coastguard members at the vigil in Blackrock

“Often, you’ll find that people who volunteer for lifeboats are either fishermen and women themselves or those who come from a fishing family. They have a deep connection to the sea — and a huge respect for the water — and they want to give something back, even if they’ve no interest in fishing themselves.

“There’s a wonderful community of rescuers, too. They’ll come from inland waterways to help on the coastline if they can and the Coast Guard helicopter is held in huge regard — it’s like a safety net. And it’s not just coastal areas that rely on it, but mountainous regions too. Sometimes it’s the only safe way to get an injured person safely down.”

The RNLI’s lifesaving manager, Gareth Morrison, says those who give their time and expertise to search-and-rescue missions are a special breed. “They’re people who feel compelled to help others and who are willing to take calculated risks in order to save somebody else’s life,” he says. “We get all kinds of people. But inside the lifeboat, everyone is equal and they work as a team. And that’s the thing about rescue work — it’s never an individual pursuit; it’s always about the strength of a team.”

When the RNLI was founded — way back in 1824 — its service was almost exclusively needed by fishermen and those whose profession revolved around the sea. Today, this charity — and others like it — are in high demand due to the huge increase in the recreational use of water.

“And, yet, 50pc of the people we rescue had no intention of getting wet,” Morrison says. “By that I mean they could have been standing on a pier or walking the dog along the banks of a river and they fell in. Tragedy can happen so easily and unexpectedly.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by those who provide rescue services on land. No hillwalker sets off with the intention of getting injured and being unable to make contact with others, but it happens — a lot.

Read more: It can be a scary environment... the weather changes so quickly

The Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue service, to name but one of many that operate throughout the country, was called upon 66 times last year. Different challenges face those rescuers than their sea-going counterparts, but dangers are present too, particularly when visibility becomes poor as is often the case when mist descends, particularly on the west coast.

This week, volunteers were continuing to search for the bodies of Rescue 116, and Damien Tiernan has seen at first-hand how heartbreaking it can be for families not to have a body to bury.

“It can be really devastating,” he says, “and unfortunately some families who lose people to sea never get to have that closure.

“Even 20 years on, you hear of people standing on the shoreline and looking out across the water and wondering where their loved ones are.”

It's not just the rescuer making a commitment, our families do, too

John Kavanagh (37), IT consultant and mountain rescuer, Dublin/Wicklow

The allure of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains were ­ever-present for John Kavanagh when he was growing up in Tallaght. Joining the Scouts at age seven introduced him to a world of nature far removed from the endless housing estates of west Dublin.

"As corny as it might sound," he says, "being in the Scouts didn't just give me a love of the great outdoors, it instilled the idea of being socially responsible, of helping other people."

Joining a caving club at college proved to be the gateway to his work with Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue and his membership of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation. "It's very gratifying because you know you're involved in something that could save somebody's life," he says.

Already this year he estimates he has been involved in a dozen search missions. "You're on call all the time, even Christmas Day, and if you're in a position to go out and help, you do that."

He admits there is an element of danger, particularly when on the side of a mountain in inclement conditions, but he and his crew do everything they can to ensure their own safety. "We don't put ourselves into situations where we are at risk of becoming another casualty. That wouldn't help anybody."

Usually, there's a happy ending to mountain rescue missions, and a hillwalker, for instance, is safely located, uninjured. But sometimes, rescuers are confronted by death. "You do see traumatic incidents," he says, "and we have policies in place to help anyone traumatised. You look out for each other as you would in any team."

John Kavanagh believes a support network is crucial. "It's not just us rescuers who make a commitment, but spouses, children, other family members, work colleagues who allow us the time to go away to do this and step into the breach.

"We couldn't do it without them."

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