All for the tip of a finger….

On a wet and windy night off the coast of Mayo, the big Search and Rescue 116, Sikorsky S92 helicopter, was preparing to land at Blacksod lighthouse to refuel. It was Monday evening March 13 2017.

The throbbing engine-sound of the Sikorsky is familiar to Galway people as it transports medical emergencies over the city to the University College Hospital, almost daily. But on this occasion, as the helicopter approached Blacksod, it would become evident that not only was the mission unwarranted, but a series of mishaps, and faulty equipment, led to the death of four ‘honourable souls who lost their precious lives that night in the service of others’.*

On board were an experienced crew under the command of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, the Coast Guard’s most senior pilot, with co-pilot Mark Duffy. Also on board were winch-operator Paul Ormsby and winch man Ciarán Smith. Rescue 116 had flown from Dublin to provide ‘top cover’ for another helicopter, 118, which had flown from Sligo to lift a man from a fishing vessel who had severed part of his thumb.

Incredibly, as it began to descend towards Blacksod helipad, Rescue 116 was unaware that it was heading straight for Blackrock Island, an inhospitable outcrop, rising some 86km (292ft ) into the air.

Yet instead of indicating a mountain of rock, instruments on 116 displayed ‘open water’ at Blackrock. The island was not on the crews’ ground proximity warning system, which alerts pilots to the danger of hitting land.

Tragically the flight data recorder, told the last few seconds of the lives of all four people on board: Smith suddenly informs the commander that he was looking at an island directly ahead, ‘Guys, you wanna come right’.

Captain asks for confirmation. Smith replies: ‘Twenty degrees right. Yeah’.

Captain Fitzpatrick asks Duffy, the co-pilot, to select heading mode and he confirmed that this was done.

Within one second of this acknowledgement, and almost 13 seconds after his first warning, Smith urged the pilot to ‘come right now, come right, COME RIGHT’.

A second automated ‘altitude, altitude’ warning issued 26 seconds after the first, coinciding with a sound believed to be impact with terrain. The last recorded words were those of Mark Duffy: ‘We’re gone…’

‘That’s a negative’

On her way across Ireland Rescue 116 had picked up contact with Shannon air traffic control near Co Meath. It was around midnight when Rescue 116 was over the west coast, preparing for a descent from 4,000 feet to refuel at Blacksod. It had been in voice contact with Shannon all along. Then, at 12.46 am, Rescue 116 suddenly disappeared from Shannon’s radar.

‘Rescue 116, Shannon’ the air traffic controller called.

No response. Shannon tried again, twice more.

Rescue 118 responded, airborne out west in the Atlantic.

‘Thank you sir’, Shannon replied. ‘Have you any contact with Rescue 116?’

‘That’s a negative,’ Rescue 118 replied.

‘No position reports whatsoever?’ Shannon asked.

‘Negative,’ Rescue 118 replied.

At 1.13am, Malin Coast Guard issued a ‘Mayday’ alert.

Unsuccessful attempts

First on the scene was the R18. Having picked up the injured fisherman it flew straight to the Mayo coast, checking all the time for any satellite signals from the emergency locator on board the R16. It had been unable to pick up any beacon signals. It was later found that the satellite location beacons, worn by pilots, had been incorrectly installed. They were unable to function.

Once over Blackrock Island the crew immediately spotted strobe lights, emitted by an immersion suite on the sea’s surface. ‘Framed against the dark water by the helicopter’s lights overhead, Dara Fitzpatrick appeared lifeless in her fully inflated life-jacket, her arms outstretched, no helmet on her head and her long hair flowing with the swell’.

R18 made several unsuccessful attempts to reach her, hampered by the fact that one of its winch crew had sustained an injury when he fell onto the deck of the fishing vessel during the medical evacuation. The RNLI Achill was shortly on the scene and took Fitzpatrick’s body on board. It was unresponsive to persistent CPR.

None of the other crew were found at this point. There were no strobe lights to signal another body.

Wait in dread

It is hard to describe the comrade-in-arms that bond the lifeboat and air rescue fraternity. Not only among the men and women themselves who constantly put their lives at risk to rescue and to give medical help to those in distress, but their families share the danger and stress almost as much as those who head into the storm. There is no guarantee they will return. Families often wait in dread.

Friends of Dara stayed with her body at the Castlebar hospital mortuary until her parents, John and Mary and her sister Niamh, arrived from Dublin. Niamh told journalists that her sister had always asked that if something happens, not to leave her alone.

In the days that followed the families of the 116 crew gathered at Blacksod. President Michael D Higgins, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny expressed condolences on behalf of the nation. Lifeboats, Irish Naval vessels, professional and amateur divers all sought in vain to find the missing crew in the immediate days after the accident. The phrase on everyone’s lips: “We need those boys home” spurred round the clock searches. Twelve days later the body of Mark Duffy was found.

When the Irish Lights’ ship, Granuaile, managed to winch the fuselage to the surface to everyone’s bitter disappointment the bodies of Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith were not inside. They are still missing.

42 recommendations

We can only imagine the sense of anger the families of the deceased, and all who work on sea rescue, felt when in the Autumn 2021 a 350 page report by the Air Accident Investigation Unit found that the ‘probable cause’ of the crash was combination of poor weather, the helicopter’s altitude and the crew being unaware of a 292-ft obstacle on a pre-programmed route guide.

The initial route the helicopter was navigating along was “almost coincident” with Blackrock island, 13km west of Blacksod, off the coast of Mayo.

Flying at 200 feet above the sea at night in poor weather, the crew was “unaware” of the island that was in its flight path, the report said.

The design and review of flight routes by Canadian Helicopter Corporation Ireland,** who operate search and rescue missions on behalf of the Coast Guard, “were capable of improvement in the interests of air safety”.

There were 12 factors in all which it said likely contributed to the crash, and made 42 recommendations for reforms.

Was it necessary?

But the greatest irony of all is that the mission to air-lift a wounded fisherman, who had slashed and removed part of his thumb, should have been a sufficient emergency as to warrant two Search and Rescue Sikorsky helicopters, and eight crew to fly out into the Atlantic was questionable. The skipper of the boat had spoken to Cork University hospital, and a doctor advised him how to administer first aid, give pain-relief and to keep the severed portion of the thumb in a saline bag with ice.

Later the skipper confirmed to Malin that the bleeding had stopped, and the man was not in ‘excruciating pain.’ Yet somewhere along the line the decision was taken to air-lift the wounded man. The commander of Rescue II8 took it in good faith that the airlift decision was taken on medical advice. This question as to whether there was any need at all for the call-out in the first place would become an issue in both the press and public imagination.

Next week: The extraordinary rescue of Ellen Glynn and Sarah Feeney who survived 15 hours in Galway Bay in August 2020.

NOTES: * The quote, spoken by Hermione, the wife of Captain Mark Duffy, one of the victims of the fatal crash on March 13 2017, continues…. ‘ and in the circumstances which are harrowing and traumatic to read, and which have left wives, children, parents and extended families, bereft’.

** Canadian Helicopters Corporation Ireland were awarded the 500-million-euro, ten year contract to provide air-sea search and rescue from four Irish bases to the Irish Coast Guard in 2010. The company maintains full confidence in the S-92’s safety and design, and that Rescue 116 was in compliance with all airworthiness directives and alert service bulletins.

CHC Ireland is a multinational company with oil and gas operations in Aberdeen, and search and rescue in Australia and South America.

Sources this week: Search and Rescue - True stories of Irish air-sea rescues and the loss of R116, by Lorna Siggins, recently published by Merrion Press, on sale €16.95.

March 13 2017.

PIC 11….. The Sikorsky S92, a familiar sight over Galway in the service of the Irish Coast Guard.

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