Tragic scout Aoife (14) 'reached door of helicopter before falling back to sea during rescue operation'
A tragic scout who was swept into the sea then fell 45 feet after reaching the door of a coastguard helicopter during a rescue operation.
An incident report from the Air Accident and Investigation Unit Ireland (AAIU) into the circumstances surrounding the death of Aoife Winterlich (14) has found that the winchman who opted to lift her and a second teen out of the water simultaneously made a "sound decision".
Aoife, from Walkinstown in Dublin, was with her scout troop walking along the coast at Hook Head, Co Wexford when she was swept into the sea, alongside another boy.
The male teen stayed with her and told investigators that she was unresponsive from shortly after they entered the water.
The Irish coastguard centre in Dublin received a call at 02.04pm and were told that a "number of kids" were in the water and a helicopter from a Waterford base was dispatched. The crew arrived on the scene minutes later, at 2.13pm and a winchman entered the water less than a minute later.
When he reached her, Aoife was "pale and unresponsive" he told investigators. The second teen was supporting her, anxiously keeping her head above water, despite the risk to his own safety. He tried to perform CPR on her before the rescue team arrived on scene. Investigators praised the teenager for his "exceptional effort" and for staying with his scouting pal during the ordeal.
On his arrival, the winchman said Aoife seemed to be drifting under the water and he was concerned, based on previous experience that the casualties would stop trying to swim on arrival of rescue services.
"The winchman was also concerned that if he winched one casualty to the helicopter, that the other would not be able to remain afloat until he returned," the report states.
When deciding to winch both to safety at the same time he "considered that his only option" according to the report.
However, as the winchman and the two teens reached the door of the helicopter and were about to be recovered Aoife slipped through the strop (a type of harness used in rescues of this type) being used to lift her and fell approximately 45ft into the sea. She was in the water for 31 seconds after the second fall.
The winchman immediately returned to the water and successfully transported her to the helicopter.
Afterwards the crew spent time looking for a third casualty in the water before the male teen told them there was only the two of them and the helicopter then made its way to hospital.
Photographic and video evidence from the scene of the accident were handed over to investigators. Some show the choppy condition of the sea around the time of the accident, others show the incident itself. The footage shows the tragic teen's jacket was pulled over her head and off her during the second fall and was never recovered.
The AAIU noted that due to the high risk nature of rescue operations "there is always the possibility for a scenario to develop that has not previously been trained for".
It also highlights that there is no specific guidance on winching an unresponsive casualty from the water and the unit has recommended that guidance be prepared for all search and rescue teams about the risks associated with winching casualties, whether conscious or unconscious, by use of a helicopter rescue strop.
"The Investigation considers that the winchman made a reasonable decision given his perception of the prevailing circumstances, the imminent risk to life and the consequent time pressure that he faced," the report states.
"The Investigation acknowledges the challenges faced by the winchman in placing each casualty into a separate rescue strop and preparing them for winching in a rolling sea and trying to secure both casualties during the winching process."
Aoife died in hospital a number of days after the accident, on December 10.
The report also notes evidence from the post-mortem which found no evidence of primary or traumatic brain injury. Evidence was found of a "period of somatic survival following resuscitation following a near drowning episode".
At her funeral her brother Martin paid tribute to her as the 'teen that we all wanted to be'.
“Aoife was quick to embrace new ideas, concepts and experiences, constantly evolving and always trying to figure out what she wanted to be,” he said.
“Compassion was one of Aoife’s many virtues – always seeing the value in everything and everyone. Wise and mature when she needed to be, less so when it suited her, Aoife wasn’t your average person, she was the 14-year-old we all wanted to be but didn’t have the guts,” he added.