Opinion

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Lost crew of Rescue 116 stand as a symbol of selfless courage

The tragedy of last week is a sober reminder of the risks which emergency rescue crews take every day, writes Jim Cusack

The search and rescue at first light at Blacksod Pier after the Rescue 116 helicopter crash.
Picture: Steve Humphreys
The search and rescue at first light at Blacksod Pier after the Rescue 116 helicopter crash. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Jim Cusack

More lives will be lost at sea this year but hundreds will survive due to the selflessness and professionalism of Irish rescue crews.

Most of those who respond in the night in all weathers to the pager or mobile phone summons are volunteers for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or the Coast Guard. They leave partners to sleep on uneasily, maybe kiss sleeping infants and set off into darkness and the unknown. On their journeys to lifeboat stations, they might learn if it is an easy or a hard job. If it's 'easy' they might send a text to an anxious loved one to reassure them.

On a good night, the weather is fine and all goes well. An RNLI crew will often arrive at a scene and simply act as back-up as one of the Sikorsky Coast Guard rescue crews airlift a stricken sailor off a trawler, cargo ship or, as the summer approaches, more often than not a leisure craft.

Then there are the true disasters. Ireland is under one of the busiest air traffic routes in the world between northern Europe and north America. On June 23, 1985 an Air India Boeing 747 en route to Canada was downed by a bomb approximately 100 miles off west Cork, killing all 327 people on board.

Three years later on December 21, 1988 Pan Am 103 en route from London to New York was downed by another bomb with the loss of 270 passengers and crew. If the terrorist bomb on Pan Am 103 had detonated a few minutes later, it too would have been in Irish territorial waters and Irish rescue crews, professional and volunteers, would have had to set out into the North Atlantic winter seas.

The Naval Service and RNLI worked for weeks searching for bodies from the Air India flight, picking up children and adults and at least one heavily pregnant victim. This is the worst, hardest part of the job, rescuers say.

Many of their calls are to pick up bodies from accidents and, although it is never stated officially, more likely suicides. Catriona Lucas, a 41-year-old mother-of-two and Coast Guard volunteer was searching for the body of a man who had jumped from the cliffs at Moher, when a sudden turn in conditions off the Co Clare coast claimed her life last September.

The day before the crew of Rescue 116 lost their lives last week, an air accident report into the death of 14-year-old Aoife Winterlich from Dublin, swept into the sea from the Hook in Wexford in December 2015, was published.

News reports at the time focused on the fact that Aoife had slipped from the rescue harness as the winchman on board another Coast Guard aircraft tried to lift her and the young boy who had stayed with her in the water to safety.

Other rescuers knew how the winchman had struggled beyond normal human capacity to retrieve the two youngsters together from some of the most treacherous shores on this island. His valiance was never acknowledged except by his friends and fellow rescuers who appreciated fully his predicament. They, instead, wondered how a group of children came to be at this deadly, rocky shore in the aftermath of an Atlantic storm surge.

Mistakes and ignorance are the biggest killers at sea and on the coast, the rescuers say.

The success of the rescue crews means that 99pc of what they achieve is never publicly acknowledged. Had the crew of Rescue 116 returned safely from their mission in support of their sister aircraft 118 in rescuing the seriously ill fisherman 240km off the Mayo coast it would barely have merited a single-line news item.

It was the worst Irish air accident since July 1999 when four Air Corps crew were killed when their helicopter crashed into a sand dune on the Waterford coast returning from a rescue mission. Following that accident and the death of Co Wexford fisherman Timmy Currid, whose trawler was driven on to Howth Pier in a November gale in 1995, the Coast Guard's dedicated helicopter rescue service was set up. Since then the Coast Guard has expanded with the recruitment of large numbers of full-time and volunteer crews. There was nothing but sympathy and respect for the crew of Rescue 116 as news of the losses filtered through last Tuesday morning.

Coast Guard and RNLI crews from around the country attended the funeral of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick yesterday, as they will also attend the funerals and memorial services for chief pilot Mark Duffy, winchmen Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby when their bodies are recovered.

The deaths of rescuers spark a particular poignancy among those who venture to sea for work or leisure, knowing that in the event of an emergency, selfless people are prepared to risk their lives to save them. Ireland has an exceptional history in this regard.

Possibly the first full-time lifeboat service in the world was established in Bulloch Harbour and then Sandycove Point in Dublin 200 years ago. Every Christmas Eve, people still gather on Dun Laoghaire Pier at the plaque bearing the names of the 15 crewmen who drowned trying to save the crew of a stricken ship in 1895, the worst single loss of rescuers' lives.

Like any trade, sea rescue runs in families - and Paul Ormsby who died on Tuesday morning, on his maternal grandmother's side, had relatives and friends who served on the Dun Laoghaire lifeboat.

Sunday Independent

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