Galway in mourning for air crash victims

Fifty years ago today, a Dutch KLM Super-Constellation airliner named Hugo De Groot crashed into the Atlantic, about 100 miles off the Conamara coast, with the loss of 99 lives. The plane was en route from Amsterdam via Shannon with eight crewmen and 91 passengers. Nobody survived. It was the worst disaster involving a single plane in the history of commercial aviation up to that point.

The ill-fated plane left Shannon Airport at 4.05am in fairly calm conditions. Radio contact with the plane was lost, so Shannon contacted Gander Airport in Newfoundland. Gander initially thought there had been radio contact with the plane, but soon realised this was not true, and so a full-scale alert was launched. A Pan-American World Airways cargo plane en route westward across the Atlantic said it had intercepted an SOS, it being about 450 miles east of Gander at the time. At 3pm that afternoon an RAF search plane sighted some wreckage about 90 miles off Slyne Head, and immediately 14 vessels of different nationalities abandoned their normal duties and headed for the scene of the crash. The first vessel to arrive was a trawler from Lorient named General Leclerc.

The Naomh Éanna was about to leave for Aran with a few hundred passengers when the mayday call came through. They disembarked the passengers and headed for the crash sight. It was dark when they got there but the sky was being lit up by RAF flares. Because the boat was high up in the water some of the personnel climbed down rope ladders to recover bits of wreckage. They kept picking up lumps of human flesh. The Aran lifeboat made several attempts to come alongside to transfer nine bodies they had on board, but the seas were too rough, and in fact the liferail of the lifeboat was smashed.

The search went on for 48 hours after which “there was nothing left to search for”. Only 34 bodies were recovered, nine of them male and 25 female, all of them passengers. None of the crew was found. Only 12 of those recovered were positively identified prior to the funeral. The remains of 11 of those were flown back to their native countries and families either in Holland or America.

Galway was mobilised and that first Thursday night several hundred people, including Order of Malta and Red Cross units, waited at the dockside praying that some might have survived the crash, but hope gradually faded. The following day a French trawler, the Jules Verne, was the first of the mercy ships to sail into the docks watched by an enormous crowd who were saddened and silenced by the scale of the tragedy. Soon another trawler, the Bisson, sailed in followed by the General Leclerc. A Canadian destroyer, the Crusader, transferred two bodies and some wreckage to a smaller boat out in the bay. The boats all sailed in with flags at half mast

The bodies were taken ashore by the Order of Malta and the Red Cross helped by the Civil Defence Corps and the Fire Brigade. A fleet of ambulances brought the remains to the Regional Hospital and post mortems were carried out through the night by Irish and Dutch doctors. A number of KLM and Dutch government officials arrived to investigate what might have caused the crash, but they had very little to work with... a few bits and pieces of wreckage and some personal effects, including a gent’s wristwatch which had stopped at 4.48am. No evidence to show the cause of impact was found. A verdict of death from multiple injuries, fractures, and haemorrhages was returned at the inquest, which was reported throughout the world by various news agencies and radio stations.

The remains of the 22 unidentified victims were interred in the new cemetery on August 19. There was a service outside the mortuary at the Regional Hospital with prayers said by clergy from the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant faiths. Then the soldiers from An Céad Cath in Renmore placed the coffins in the hearses and army vehicles and led contingents from the Civil Defence, the Red Cross, and the Knights of Malta followed by the cortege though the city. Behind the hearses came the next of kin, church dignitaries, members of the Diplomatic Corps, nurses, the city council and those present in an official capacity.

All of the church bells in the city tolled, shops were closed, and business suspended. Ten thousand people lined the streets, kneeling and praying as the funeral passed. Many wept openly. The interment took place without any further rites in St Mary’s Cemetery.

Our photographs today show the trawler Bisson sailing into the docks; three of the personnel on the Naomh Éanna at the crash site, Martin Reaney, John Reck, and Tommy Fitzpatrick down on the rope ladder; and the huge crowd gathered for the internment.

Our thanks to John Reck for his help in compiling the above.

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