Rescue 116: Taoiseach meets agencies on board LE Eithne

Faint ping from black box recorder still audible on Sunday evening

Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD has visited Blacksod Co. Mayo to meet those involved in the search for the three missing crewmen of the Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter. Video: Keith Heneghan

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is being briefed by the various agencies involved in the search for the three crewmen from the R116 helicopter Monday on the latest developments in the operation.

The Irish Coast Guard helicopter crashed into the Atlantic last Tuesday.

Monday’s meeting between the Taoiseach and rescue agencies is taking place on board the LE Eithne which has been part of the search near Blacksod in Co Mayo.

Mr Kenny, who attended the funeral of the helicopter’s pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick on Saturday, kept in close contact with the search effort during his visit to meet US president Donald Trump last week. He is expected to meet relatives of the missing airmen during Monday’s visit.

Search teams have successfully mapped out a section of water where they believe the aircraft’s black box recorder lies.

However, large swells are expected to hamper progress again on Monday despite a 10-hour operation preparing the 100m by 100m area off Blacksod, Co Mayo for a dive and underwater robot search.

The faint ping or signal from the black box continued to be audible on Sunday evening.

Air, sea and shore searches are continuing along the Mayo coast for missing air crew Capt Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormbsy and winchman Ciaran Smith who disappeared after the Irish Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 crashed while supporting a medical evacuation last week.

Declan Geoghegan, of the Irish Coast Guard, said the section of ocean, beside Blackrock Lighthouse, was now fully scanned and mapped to allow the Irish Lights vessel — the Granuaile — to manoeuvre safely into position.

The ship has a heavy-lifting crane as well as “dynamic positioning” technology, which allows it to remain in exactly the same spot on the surface — much like an aircraft would hover — so divers and remote operated vehicles can be deployed to search 40m below.

It is hoped the black box recorder was still attached to the bulk of the helicopter wreckage, or near it, and the three missing crewmen would be in the Sikorsky S92.

“They have the area scanned and mapped and they have a plan now to get the Granuaile into position,” Mr Geoghegan said.

“But the weather is deteriorating in terms of swell. So they just might not be able to do a whole lot on Monday.

“From Tuesday onwards, its looks a lot better into the rest of the week.

“Monday might not be a great day but they have all the preparatory work done — they have achieved all that and more.”

Sea surge

The Marine Institute’s largest ROV, named Holland 1, was loaded onto the Granuaile in Galway on Saturday and is equipped with two robotic arms, high definition cameras and sonars, and can work at 3,000m in depth.

Marine Institute research vessel manager Aodhán Fitzgerald said the challenge in this location is not the depth of the black box signal, which is only 40m, but the sea surge in and around the area.

The ROV can be deployed laterally from the Granuaile and, if successful, is far safer than using diving teams. Naval Service divers are on standby, however, and the depth is within their limits.

The 12m Gearoidín and 7m Geological Survey of Ireland storm force rigid inflatable boats carried underwater imaging equipment on Sunday to try and locate the black box flight recorder, which emitted a faint signal in 40m of water 50 to 60m from the lighthouse plateau on Wednesday.

Marine Institute surveyors and Naval Service divers on board the two vessels were accompanied by a fisherman familiar with the waters known for their strong tides and currents.

The vessels were provided with shelter by the Naval Service patrol ship LÉ Eithne.

The RNLI Achill and Ballyglass lifeboats, which have been undertaking sweeps of Achill island, Blacksod Bay and the Mullet peninsula since early on Tuesday, were also out at sea again on Sunday with voluntary crews. The shore searches are being co-ordinated by the Irish Coast Guard Ballyglass unit.

Wreckage

The strongest signal from the black box recorder was detected in the 100m by 100m section just off Blackrock lighthouse, around 13km offshore from Blacksod, where the aircraft was due to land to refuel moments before it vanished.

The underwater terrain, part of the lighthouse rock, and dangerous underwater currents in the area are adding to difficulties.

While search teams are confident they are looking in the right area for the black box, they will not know if it remains attached to the missing helicopter fuselage, or if the fuselage remains intact, until divers or underwater vehicles are deployed.

In the vast majority of helicopter crashes, crew are found within the wreckage but heavy underwater currents can break apart the bulk.

‘Nightmare of waiting’

The funeral took place on Saturday for Captain Dara Fitzpatrick (45) who was the only one of the four crew recovered from the ocean.

The mother-of-one was remembered as a brave hero, an adoring mother and a champion of the underdog during a packed service at St Patrick’s Church, Glencullen, in the Dublin mountains.

Fr Andrew O’Sullivan said that few funerals were “as profoundly sad and sorrowful”.

The parish priest added that everyone was praying the “nightmare of waiting may soon be over” for the families of the other crew members who remain missing.

President Michael D Higgins, the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin were among the mourners.

The Dublin-based helicopter crew was providing cover for another Coast Guard helicopter involved in an early-morning evacuation of a crewman around 240km off the west coast. It later emerged that the Coast Guard was responding to a relatively minor hand injury.

The R116 was tasked with providing communications and back-up support for the Sligo-based R118 on the 482km round trip to the fishing vessel in the Atlantic.

It had flown directly to the scene from the Dublin, travelled around 16km out to sea, then turned back towards land to refuel.

R116 disappeared just after 12.45am on Tuesday morning as it prepared to land at Blacksod, Co Mayo, to refuel.

There was no indication of any danger moments before it vanished, with the crew’s final transmission: “Shortly landing at Blacksod.”

Additional reporting from PA