‘Your son. He’s dead.’ Storm Ophelia’s real damage

The families of Fintan Goss, Clare O’Neill and Michael Pyke will never forget Monday

Michael Pyke, Clare O’Neill and Fintan Goss, who were killed in Storm Ophelia on Monday

Michael Pyke, Clare O’Neill and Fintan Goss, who were killed in Storm Ophelia on Monday

 

On Monday, at around lunch time, there were reports on the radio of a serious injury to a man who was cutting wood outside Cahir.

“We were getting ready to go out and cut [timber] and the next thing the guard and priest were walking in,” said Tony Pyke.

“‘We have bad news for you’,” the priest and guard said to Tony, asking him to sit down.

“Your son Michael.”

“What?” Tony asked them.

“He’s dead.”

Tony Pyke had seen a news report about the incident but had not realised it related to his son.

*****

On Wednesday, October 11th, a significant weather phenomenon moving eastwards across the Atlantic Ocean was named Ophelia by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, which had been tracking it for several days. It was graded a Category 3 storm and for several days it was, for most Irish people, just a colourful blip on a map that sporadically appeared on their social media feeds and television screens.

On Monday morning the storm hit the southwest coast with wind speeds of 192km an hour recorded at Fastnet Rock. Schools, universities and places of business were closed. Over the course of the day various forms of public transportation ceased operating. Funerals and football matches and a performance of Miss Saigon were cancelled. People were warned against unnecessary travel.

By the evening, 300,000 houses were without electricity, 48,000 were without water and around the country trees were uprooted, cars were damaged and school gyms, churches, football stands and Simon Coveney’s shed all lost their roofs as the 120km-wide storm moved from the southwest to the northeast across the country.

But all of these things were reparable and reversible. Not all consequences of the storm were.

A Garda vehicle near Aglish, Co Waterford, where Clare O’Neill was killed after a tree landed on a car. Photograph: Patrick Browne
A Garda vehicle near Aglish, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

On 12.25pm that day, 31-year-old Michael Pyke found himself on a back road that travels from Ardfinnan in southwest Tipperary to the R668, probably on his way back to the family home after buying diesel at a local garage. Earlier that day he and his father, Tony Pyke, had talked about using their chainsaws to clear some of the fallen branches expected to lie on the local roads, as Storm Ophelia approached. Michael loaded his chainsaw into the boot of his car.

On his way home Michael had come across some tree boughs lying on the road. He decided to take his chainsaw from the boot and began cutting one of the boughs, but by this time the storm was raging furiously in this part of Munster, and other branches and boughs were falling nearby. One of those hit him on the head, killing him instantly.

Michael was a qualified blocklayer and worked in that area until work dried up in the recession, after which he embarked on an electrical apprenticeship. If not for the storm he would have left his house at 4.30am to go to work with STS Group Specialist Technical Services in Dublin.

Instead a motorist discovered him on the road and alerted the emergency services. There was little they could do. Michael was dead, leaving his partner, Nollaig Hennessy, his father and his 10 siblings devastated.

“He was a fine, strapping, young fella,” his father said.

“A gentle giant,” his sister Lisa said.

Michael Pyke
Michael Pyke

Across the country people watched the storm. Warnings, pictures, videos and press conferences were shared on social media. Foolhardy kite surfers in Dundalk Bay and swimming celebrity chefs in Greystones were shamed and their ilk dubbed “reckless idiots” by Niamh Fitzpatrick, the sister of the late coast guard pilot Dara Fitzpatrick. Hotels offered free hotel rooms. Irish Rail offered refunds. The Islamic Cultural Centre opened its doors to the homeless.

Everyone became familiar with the face of Sean Hogan, director of fire and emergency management and chairman of the National Emergency Co-ordination Committee.

People discussed previous storms, such as Hurricane Debbie in 1969 or the “big wind” of 1839, but the authorities warned that Ophelia was “unprecedented”. “Unprecedented is not a word we use often,” Hogan told Irish Times journalist Peter Murtagh. “In fact, we debated using it.”

*****

On Monday morning Clare O’Neill drove her mother, Lavinia, to an appointment, then headed back towards her mother’s home in Clashmore, a small village in west Waterford.

Shortly before 11.30am, on the road between her adopted home village of Aglish and Clashmore, the winds, which had been strengthening all morning, brought a branch hurtling on to the car. The branch pierced the windscreen of her car and struck her in the chest, causing fatal injuries.

Clare, originally from Co Cork, worked as a nurse for more than 30 years and spent the last eight years of that time with Cork ARC Cancer Support House, helping establish a support service for cancer patients in east Cork and west Waterford.

Six months ago she was appointed the Cancer Support Co-Ordinator at their Youghal office. At the time she said: “I feel so passionate about what we do and know how much our support helps those in need by being listened to with kindness.”

In her spare time, Clare and her daughter, Rosie, were keen members of Dungarvan Hillwalking Club. The club paid tribute to her “warmth, kindness and empathy”. ARC described her as “a wonderful nurse and special person”, and on Tuesday it closed its headquarters on O’Donovan Rossa Road in Cork city as a mark of respect.

It would have been her birthday, the day after Storm Ophelia made its way across Ireland.

Clare O'Neill
Clare O'Neill

Across the country that Monday, people worried about their friends and family. In the morning a 14-year-old girl was reported missing in Passage West, Co Cork, but turned up safe and sound sheltering from the storm at a friend’s house.

At 2.15pm, an RNLI lifeboat helped a struggling three-man yacht into Rosslare harbour.

In Fossa, outside Killarney, a tree barely missed Sean Moriarty’s tractor. In Ranelagh in Dublin a 70ft tree struck an unoccupied house. Many people discussed near misses.

At 2.45pm in Co Louth, 33-year-old father of two Fintan Goss was returning early from work on the old main Dublin to Belfast road, when a tree fell on his car. He was pronounced dead at the scene. “It was a freak thing,” said one local garda. “He wouldn’t have seen it at all.”

He was a short drive from his home in Ballymakellett, Ravensdale. This was the second tragic death to be visited on the family. His brother, Ronan, had died 17 years earlier in an accident in Edinburgh.

Fintan Goss had one daughter, Laragh, and his wife, Pamela, had recently given birth to a baby boy, Henry. The next church event attended by the family was meant to be his christening.

The Goss family are well known in political and sporting circles in Louth. Fintan’s brother Colin was a local election candidate for Fine Gael in 2014 and also a well-known GAA player.

The family were “synonymous with Ravensdale”, said the chairman of Dundalk municipal district, John McGahon. “The local community will rally around the family at this terrible time and provide whatever support they need.”

On LMFM radio Paul Breen, chairman of St Patrick’s GFC in Lordship described Fintan as “a staunch St Pat’s man”. “Fintan was part of our minor winning team of 2002, probably the team that propelled us on to the success we have had in recent years and it is just hard to explain this, but I suppose this is the human cost of the storm that came across the country.”

Fintan Goss
Fintan Goss

That night President Michael D Higgins sent a message to the nation from Australia where he was on an official visit: “I have no doubt that when the full assessment of the impact of hurricane Ophelia is available, some of the finer characteristics of the Irish people in responding to difficulties will emerge, and that people in Ireland will co-operate with each other in their usual way, and that those who work in public service will produce the extraordinary response for which they have such a great reputation. I wish everybody safety, good health and the patience that no doubt will be required.”

By Tuesday most people had moved on to talking about insurance claims, discussing how the government response to such incidents had improved and posting pictures of storm damage on social media. A small group of experts were already planning for future storms.

A smaller group of people remained devastated by this one – and the deaths it caused.

“I’d say it caught him completely unawares, with the noise of the wind and the whole lot,” said Tony Pyke of his son Michael. His family are devastated. Michael’s mother, Moira, died 11 years before and her death had already cast a shadow on the family.

“Michael was the baby boy. He was always the apple of Mam’s eye,” his sister Lisa recalled. “Every Saturday she’d go shopping and we’d ask if we could go and she’d say no. But she’d always come home with Michael in tow. He’d always come home with her.”

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