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Rescue effort mounted in dangerous seas

Over 50 people involved in search for experienced boat owner as community comes to terms with terrible tragedy

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Willie Whelan

Willie Whelan

Willie Whelan

Fishing communities across Co Wexford are in mourning this week following the deaths of two men in a tragic fishing accident off Hook Head on Saturday night.

Kilmore Quay man Joe Sinnott's body was recovered at around midnight on Saturday, while a massive recovery operation is continuing off the coast for William (Willie) Whelan, a 41-year-old Saltmills man who was married last year.

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

Dunmore East RNLI spokesman Neville Murphy said two RNLI vessels launched within minutes from Kilmore Quay and Dunmore East. 'The Rescue 117 helicopter and the LE Ciara joined the operation and they are still out searching. The search has now moved on to a search and recovery operation (from a search and rescue one).'

The Alize, which is one of a number of vessels owned by a family from South Wexford and is registered as operating out of Duncannon, had been out fishing for scallops for 36 hours and was due to return on Saturday night but failed to do so.

The Alize is a 11.7 metre steel-hulled vessel built in the UK and is believed to be more than 20 years old.

Mr Murphy, who is a winchman with the Rescue 117 helicopter, said RNLI crews were in the water at 11 p.m. on Saturday, having received the EPIRB at 10.48 p.m.

Mr Sinnott, from Kilmore Quay, was discovered at around midnight after his reflective life-jacket was spotted from the helicopter four nautical miles off Duncannon. He was unresponsive when winched onboard the helicopter and was airlifted to Waterford Airport from where he was rushed by ambulance to University Hospital Waterford in Ardkeen, where he sadly passed away on Sunday.

Meanwhile the crew of the Irish Coastguard Sikorski helicopter, Rescue 117, RNLI Lifeboat crews from Kilmore Quay and Dunmore East assisted by local fishing boats from both ports were searching the water for Mr Whelan.

The Irish Coastguard Sikorski helicopter from Dublin, Rescue 116 joined in the search at first light on Sunday and the search is being co-ordinated by the Naval Service's LE Ciara whose crew have been off Hook Head since early on Sunday morning.

'No one has seen the vessel. Joe Sinnott was found near to where the EPIRB indicated. The water depth is 50m which is particularly deep. I have been involved in a lot of operations (in the area) like this over the years including the Pere Charles tragedy in which five men lost their life. That recovery operation went on for weeks and the remains were never found,' Mr Murphy said.

The search area is not far from the scene of the sinking of the Dunmore East trawler which went down with the loss of all five crew while returning home from a fishing trip for herring in January 2007.

He said: 'They were out until 11 a.m. on Sunday when they returned to refuel and change their oil. Fishermen came out on Sunday morning as did the Fethard Inshore lifeboat crew. Conditions were challenging but workable and the search continued until the fall of darkness at around 4 p.m.'

A surface search will continue in the hope that Mr Whelan and the vessel are located.

'We are going to do a surface search until we locate the vessel and can be 100 per cent that it is the right one and then the naval divers can dive in at some stage hopefully. On Sunday afternoon's search we had naval vessel, three RNLI vessels, two helicopters and more than 20 local boats involved. We couldn't do anymore.

'Our thoughts and prayers are with both families. We have recovered Joe Sinnott. It's good to get him back to his family and hopefully a bit of closure will come with that.'

He said an extended search is very difficult on a family.

Weather conditions on Saturday night were said to be reasonable with Force 4 winds while on Sunday morning winds had risen to Force 5 with two metre swells but worsened to Force 7 later on Sunday night, into Monday morning. After a wild start on Monday, the weather calmed, enabling the search operation to continue in calmer seas.

Describing conditions on Monday morning as 'atrocious', Mr Murphy said two privately owned boats joined the LE Ciara, Dunmore East and Kilmore Quay RNLI vessels in the search at 9 a.m. in 50 Knot winds.

He said: 'The lifeboats are all weather so there is no weather that would stop us.

'The wind is picking up again tonight. It was 50 knots today (Monday) but calmed down a bit. It's due to ease off on Tuesday.'

He said local boat owners and people who were thinking of searching on the coastline were advised to keep back on Monday due to the stormy conditions.

'It's a very dangerous area in our seas and we've been actively encouraging people to stay back as the utmost caution is needed.'

Cllr Ger Carthy said it remains a mystery what happened. 'Some time after 10.30 p.m. something happened. They were coming in across Hook Head and it went down without even having time to give them an opportunity to send out a mayday call. The EPIRB is activated once a vessel goes underwater.

'The signal goes to the Dublin marine (Rescue Coordination Centre). Fortunately they were able to locate Joe Sinnott and bring him to University Hospital Waterford.'

Describing Mr Sinnott's death as a tragedy, Cllr Carthy said something catastrophic must have happened. He said fishing was in the blood of the two men and their families.

'They were both very experienced fishermen. Something very catastrophic happened and both men lost their lives.'

Wexford People