The Search for the Crew of Rescue 116

To all our members,

It was with great shock and sadness that we all heard of the downing of Rescue 116 on Black Rock back on March 14th last. As people who regularly use the sea, we are only too aware of the fantastic job that the brave helicopter crews do in keeping us all safe. For weeks we were on standby, waiting for the chance to help in returning the crew to their loved ones. This is something we do in Search and Recovery units throughout the length and breadth of the country….bringing closure to families at times of tragedy.

Unfortunately, we did not get the result we hoped for in our operation over the last few weeks. We had hoped to return the lads to their families but despite our very best efforts it is now up to the sea to give them up, hopefully, sometime in the near future.

We have all been following the search with great interest since the night of the crash. The Garda and Navy divers were in there from the start. Diving conditions were immediately found to be extremely difficult. Black Rock, more an Island than a rock, is over 8 nautical miles from Blacksod Pier. It’s well out there in the Atlantic, and as such, is subject to swells and currents. It was found by the divers that diving wasn’t really possible in swells of over 1m high….very rare to get those kind of calm conditions, especially in the springtime. The ebbing tide was found to be strongest, running at over 4 knots. When conditions were ideal, both Garda and Navy divers managed to cover some ground. As a club, Gráinne Uaile SAC, has dived Black Rock in times past, but only when the sea was like glass.

In the case of all missing persons, the Gardaí are in charge. The Superintendent in charge is Tony Healy. Tony is an M2 with the Garda SAC and has been a long time associate member of Gráinne Uaile SAC. Indeed he has dived Black Rock in the past and so was very familiar with all the difficulties of the search. The Coast Guard were coordinating the sea search and we were waiting for a callout to participate in the search. We were on standby. Finally we got the call. On Saturday the 8th April, we took part in the largest ever sea search in Irish waters. When I put out the call, through our regional SAR coordinators, the answer was immediate. We ended up with 22 RIBs from every part of the country……boats from Cork, Clare, Galway, The Midlands, Louth and Dublin, Donegal and Mayo, a magnificent effort by all.

The search area was divided into boxes…..

Aranmore ALB Box

Cover from S of Aranmore Is. to Rathlin O Beirne and up to 5nm off the coast, controlled by Aranmore Life Boat

Killibegs CG Box

From Rathlin O Beirne to St John’s Pt including Inver Bay…Coast Guard

Bundoran LB Box

From Streedagh Pt to St John’s Pt……Life Boat

Sligo Bay Bay LB Box

From Streedagh Pt to Easkey Pt….Life Boat

Killala CG Box

From Easkey Pt to Downpatrick Hd…Coast Guard

From Downpatrick Hd to Achill was covered by over a hundred fishing vessels

As you can see from the above, this was a massive undertaking. In our own box we worked with Killala Coast Guard. This is exactly what our recent Service Level Agreement with the Coast Guard is all about…working together. We had 9 Ribs…

Gráinne Uaile SAC x 3

Blackwater SAC x 2

Galway SAC x 1

Burren SAC x 1

Kilkee SAC x 1

Killala Coast Guard x 1

On the day we covered just over 100 Nautical Miles!

The other Boxes covered similar distances, an incredible effort by all. We were ready, with even more boats, to continue the sea search on the following day but it was called off by the Coast Guard due to unfavourable sea conditions.

Then on Sunday 16th April, some five weeks after the tragedy, John Joe Rowland, National Coordinator of SAR in CFT informed me that we had finally been given the call to go diving on the Rock. A weather window was predicted for the following weekend. As soon as I contacted the regional coordinators the response was immense and immediate. Divers from all points were willing to come. All divers had to be SAR trained and dived up to 25/30m.

At this stage John Kearney of Baltimore Dive Centre and West Cork Underwater SAR, and John Murphy of SafeTRX, became involved. John Kearney took over as DO and John Murphy was a powerhouse with his I.T. skills in organising accommodation etc for the divers. It was a mammoth task. We had over 160 people arriving over the course of the weekend. Divers and RIBs began arriving from Friday evening. The fáilte we received at the hands of the people of the Mullet Peninsula was unbelievable. Remember, the people of Eachléim had been doing this for the previous six weeks.

Early Saturday morning the dive site was checked and unfortunately the swell was too high. So all diving was postponed until the afternoon. It was touch and go as to whether we would dive then, but at last we managed to dive. Weighted guide lines had been laid by local fishermen to the south of the island above the 30m contour. The area below this contour had been well searched by the ROV. We travelled out to the site 20 mins apart, one RIB at a time, with 6 to 8 divers aboard…depending on the size of the RIB. The divers were to follow the guide lines….3 or 4 on either side of the weighted line. 54 dives were completed on the Saturday and 78 on the Sunday morning….an incredible 132 dives within a 24 hr period covering the South and West of the island. The diving itself was tough. While the viz was excellent, between 20 and 30m, the strong currents proved difficult. On some of the lines, the current flowed with the divers and on other lines close by, divers had to fin against the current. Two of my own club members were caught in the current and were swept hundreds of metres away. SMB’s were invaluable. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate either of the two missing crew members of Rescue 116. The weather changed on the Sunday afternoon and so diving was called off.

The professionalism shown by our dive teams was impressive. We had divers from Kerry, Cork, Tipperary, Clare, Kilkenny, Dublin, Louth, Meath, West Meath, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway, Donegal and Mayo. This is what SAR is all about, divers giving of their time and energies to search the length and breadth of the country to bring loved ones home to their families.

The Coast Guard, Gardaí and Civil Defence were incredibly supportive over the weekend and provided us with the necessary logistical, technical and safety support for operation. We owe them our gratitude.

Orla Smith, sister of Ciaran, worked with us over the weekend and she, with her parents, was a frequent visitor to our portacabin on the pier from where the operation was managed. We shared the plan with them, introduced them to divers and could show them on the computer the locations of the RIBs going to and from the search site. This, I think, helped in some way. Seeing members of the dive community from all around the country volunteer their time and skill to search for their brother and son made a statement, a simple statement: it just said, ‘We care’.

This was the largest underwater search ever undertaken in Ireland and followed closely on the largest sea search in the history of the state, I am immensely proud of the involvement of so many SAR CFT divers. It was an honour and a pleasure to work with you all. Thanks also to John Kearney, John Murphy and many of their friends and family who came to help. Thanks also to my other regional coordinators in putting this massive effort together. It could not work without your time and efforts. Thanks also to the clubs which provided RIBs, jeeps and fuel for such a massive search. We should all be proud of CFT!

I would especially like to thank the people of the Mullet peninsula and in particular the people of Eachléim and Blacksod. For 6 weeks thy provided food and drink to the army of volunteers who descended on the area. There can’t have been a spare bed in the area .Go raibh céad míle maith agaibh.

There are SAR units in clubs all over the country. Why not find out more about them by checking out the CFT website? There may be a course in your area or we could run a course for you if needed. It’s not for everyone but there’s a great feeling of community and care in bringing a casualty home to loved ones.

 

Yours in diving.

Conall Ó Domhnaill

Gráinne Uaile SAC

SAR West