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Sunday 17 December 2017

Piece by piece, the tragic fate of Rescue 116 is confirmed

Wreckage from the Rescue 116 Helicopter is brought back to Blacksod Pier after the Coastguard Helicopter crash Photo: Steve Humphreys
Wreckage from the Rescue 116 Helicopter is brought back to Blacksod Pier after the Coastguard Helicopter crash Photo: Steve Humphreys
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Shortly before 6pm, a large piece of the battered undercarriage bearing the words "Coast Guard" was towed in from out at sea. It took four men to drag it onto the pier at Blacksod.

Earlier, fisherman Sean Keane had located one of the doors from the cockpit.

Piece by heartbreaking piece, the fate of Rescue 116 was confirmed.

The light was fading and the search was being scaled back for the night but the LÉ Roisin and the LÉ Eithne would continue their search of the dark treacherous waters amid ever-worsening conditions.

Throughout the evening, mini-buses had begun to arrive, bringing heartbroken family members of the four brave coast guards to the stone lighthouse at Blacksod, the heavy trudge of their feet conveying their grief in a way that words could not. Amongst them were children.

The hush of voices of the coast guard and gardaí was drowned out by the white-topped waves crashing ashore with increasing might.

Conditions were worsening, noted Gerard O'Flynn, the search and rescue operations manager with the Irish Coast Guard.

Asked what chance the three missing could have, his voice quivered momentarily.

"Unfortunately with the passage of time the level of hope does go down," he said.

"We have to be a little bit fearful with the passage of time."

Amid any loss of this magnitude, quietness is the abiding trait. In the dark early hours of the morning before, what was first noticed was the silence of the missing helicopter, and the knowledge of what that silence meant.

Fergus, a TV cameraman, had been helping out his uncle, Vincent Sweeney, the principal lighthouse attendant, who is one of a long line keeping a watch over the seas from the isolated perch at Blacksod since his grandfather, Ted, took over the station in 1931.

It was Ted who had delivered the crucial weather forecast that had postponed the D-Day landings.

Since the automation of the lighthouses, Vincent had maintained his watch, in later years, assisted by his sons, Simon and Fergus, who help him out whenever helicopters come in to refuel after an operation.

Speed

"You lay out the cable and the pump and get it all ready for them," he explained, adding that speed is of the essence because often the helicopter would have a casualty in the back and they would need to get away to the hospital as soon as possible.

"It's all about speed," said Fergus. "It probably takes about 15 minutes all in."

They had got the call that two helicopters were expected, the first at about 11pm, with the second one, from Dublin, arriving soon after. Vincent had told Fergus and Simon that the helicopter would be "another while" and so Fergus left.

At about 1.20am, he was awoken by Simon, who told him that Rescue 116 had gone down.

When the helicopter had failed to materialise, Simon and Vincent had noticed it was "very quiet", said Fergus.

"They knew what it meant and what was going to happen," he said.

Local councillor Gerry Coyle found out about the disaster at 7am from his son who lives in Chicago - and who had been following the unfolding events during the night.

The local community in Belmullet has been left stunned and deeply saddened by the depth of this tragedy.

About 500 people live in the scattered townland of Blacksod.

They are a community well used to the roar of helicopters and of the drama of rescue.

But a loss of this magnitude has left them powerless to make sense of it.

In the afternoon, women from the local heritage centre brought a large tray of soup and sandwiches to those down at the lighthouse.

"It has affected us," said one woman, her voice trailing off helplessly.

"We are well aware of the danger of the sea," said TD Dara Calleary, who spoke of the dedication of the coast guard and rescue service in assisting communities.

On the horizon, four fishing boats were conducting a sweep in the skirts of the LÉ Roisin.

Their search is about two to three square miles, said Gerard O'Flynn, describing it as a relatively small area.

The debris found so far has been scattered and the forecast today is "not particularly favourable" - but he added stoutly: "I think we have a good opportunity for searching."

He paid tribute to a number of fishermen assisting in the search. "There were six boats out searching today and they were there since early morning," he said.

Later in the day, a picture of the dead and the missing became painfully clear.

Dedicated, hard workers. Heroes. Parents.

Energetic

The nation was already familiar with Dara Fitzpatrick (45) - the energetic, beautiful pilot who had often appeared on television to talk about her duties as a coast guard.

She was discovered in the water not long after the crash, thought to have been located by the strobe lights on her uniform.

Her condition was critical and she was airlifted to Mayo community hospital yesterday morning, but she died a short time afterwards.

Her heartbroken sister Niamh Fitzpatrick sent a tweet to say her family was "devastated" at the loss of her "brave sister", adding: "Please pray for recovery of three remaining crew."

"Dara is one of the most senior pilots with CHC, she has been with the company close on 20 years," Mr O'Flynn said.

"Outside of her work as a pilot, she did an enormous amount of work in water safety and was always available to do school visits and just highlight basic water safety," he said.

Chief pilot Mark Duffy and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith all risked their lives to assist their communities, going above and beyond, amid rough seas and dark nights.

Mr Duffy is a native of Dundalk. He moved to the nearby seaside village of Blackrock with wife Hermione and two children.

On everyone's mind is that just six months ago, the Irish coast guard community received a body blow with the loss of brave coast guard Catriona Lucas off the coast of Liscannor.

Courageous and above the ordinary is the norm in the coast guard service.

Those who are missing are no different.

For those combing the Atlantic off Belmullet and standing with heavy hearts on the shoreline in Blacksod, the wait goes on.

Irish Independent

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