Wexford People

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Agonising search goes on for Willie Whelan

Father recalls amazing son lost on trawler as weather hampers major search


A crowd attending a prayer ceremony on Hook Head for Willie Whelan on Sunday

A crowd attending a prayer ceremony on Hook Head for Willie Whelan on Sunday

Willie Whelan

Willie Whelan


A crowd attending a prayer ceremony on Hook Head for Willie Whelan on Sunday

The family of missing fisherman Willie Whelan have spoken of their heartbreak as the search continues for the 41-year-old Saltmills man.

Willie's stepmother Maggie said: 'It's getting harder with every passing day as the reality of (what has happened) sinks in.'

Both she and his father Joe have been deeply heartened by the efforts of everyone from the Navy, the Coastguard, the RNLI crews and volunteers over the past nine days since Willie went missing on the night of January 5 while out fishing for scallops with Joe Sinnott.

Mr Sinnott was laid to rest amid heartbreaking scenes a he was given an incredible tribute in his native village of Kilmore Quay on Wednesday.

The search operation for Willie had to be called early off on Sunday afternoon due to the worsening weather as Storm Brendan was approaching.

Joe Whelan, who runs M&J Fish with his wife Maggie and his sons, said he was speaking with Willie on the night he went missing.

That night the emergency services were alerted at 10.45 p.m. when the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) from the fishing vessel, Alize was activated.

'I was speaking to him at 8.45 p.m. on the phone. He was on his last haul. He said he would round off what he had and I said that was good fishing. He told me he'd tell me how much he had landed when he got home. We would always have the auld craic. He was the nicest chap. He never, ever was in bad humour going to work. If he went down the cement road he would come back with scallops.'

Joe travelled out to the Hook and saw the lights of three trawlers out at sea. He rang Wilie at 9.45 p.m. but there was no answer.

'I knew he was doing something and would call back.'

At 10.30 p.m. Joe and Maggie received a phone-call from the Coastguard. 'I didn't realise how serious it was but Maggie knew.'

Willie's wife Mandy was also contacted.

Joe called a friend who checked to see if there were three lights out on the water but there were only two.

'There had been discussions between the skippers of the three and it was agreed Hugh Burke, who was on the other boat, was to come in first. There had been no sign of any problem. Between Joe and Willie there would be about 50 years experience. Nobody knows what happened.'

Joe and Maggie thanked everyone who has in any way helped in the search, and to support the family.

'People can't do any more than what they are doing. Unfortunately he's just not found at the moment. They will never put an end to the searching. It's just to have a burial plot.'

Joe said the Alize trawler which the Samuel Beckett Navy crew are searching for on the sea bed, was '120 per cent'.

'She was rebuilt five years ago at a cost of €500,000.'

Malcolm and Ciaran have been out searching for their brother. Joe and Maggie thanked the Navy, the RNLI crews, the gardaí, the staff at University Hospital Waterford, the Hook Lighthouse team for providing everyone with food and all of the organisations and individuals involved in the search.

'You don't realise how good people are until something like this happens.'

They both attended a prayer ceremony at Hook Head on Sunday, where Joe's great-grandson Jayden, who was born on January 14, 2018 and only lived to be two hours old, was also remembered. Sgt Eddie Wilde said there are three strands to the search: the naval ship the Samuel Beckett under Lieutenant Commander Diarmuid O'Donovan are searching underwater, a large search over water by the Navy, volunteers on fishing boats, Kilmore Quay, Dunmore East and Fethard-on-Sea and the Coastguard, the RNLI and Wexford Civil Defence are coordinating the coastline search.

Sgt Wilde said all of the organisations are doing trojan work. 'It's very hard and tiresome work. Members of the Whelan family are also involved in the search so a huge effort involving a number of agencies is ongoing.'

Speaking on the search and recovery operation, Sgt Wilde said varying possibilities about where the Alize is are being explored, adding that the area picked up by the EPIRB has been searched, but the depth of water has made it very difficult for the naval officers to investigate.

'We are keeping the family updated on what is happening. The family are very decent people who are dealing with a huge tragedy with tremendous dignity.'

Specialist drone technology was used last week off of Kilmore Quay as part of the search along with rescue helicopter 117. It is still unknown when naval divers can reach the stricken vessel which lies on the seabed around 60 metres below the surface.

According to Minister of State Paul Kehoe, volunteers are using specialist drone technology to scour the shoreline over a two-kilometre area.

Under the direction of Wexford's Civil Defence Officer Peter O'Connor, the volunteers will resume their efforts tomorrow as they operate their drone between Kilmore Quay and Cullenstown.

Sgt Wilde urged people not to do 'solo runs' putting themselves at risk, and to let the many organisations involved in the search carry on with their work.

The weather is dictating the search operation, driving search teams towards the Saltee Islands. The Waterford Estuary has also been searched. People are being urged to take extra caution on the shoreline due to the stormy weather this week.

Wexford People