The tragedy of 'Tit Bonhomme'

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

The weeks of the search for the trawler, which sank in January, were agonising for Caitlín Ui hAodha, whose husband was its
skipper. Now she is returning to Union Hall to mark the lives lost and thank everybody who helped find the drowned fishermen

‘I THINK UNION HALL is going to be a different place for us now. It’s going to be difficult for all of us, but I want to go back there and have this Mass as a thank you for all the effort and time and emotion that so many people invested in helping us.”

Caitlín Ui hAodha is sitting at her kitchen table in Helvick, overlooking Dungarvan Bay in Co Waterford, where a northwesterly wind is whipping up surf as she speaks about her return to Union Hall this weekend for a Mass for her husband, Michael Hayes, and the others lost on the trawler Tit Bonhommein January.

It’s the first Wednesday in March, four weeks to the day since the body of her 52-year-old husband was found and eight weeks since Hayes and four of his crew – 21-year-old Kevin Kershaw, 35-year-old Wael Mohamed, 26-year-old Attaia Shaban and 22-year-old Saied Ali Eldin – died when the boat sank.

Hayes, who was an experienced skipper, and his colleagues died when their 21m steel-hulled boat sank in stormy seas near Adam’s Island, at the entrance to Glandore Harbour, just 10 minutes short of tying up in their home port of Union Hall on the morning of January 15th.

Ui hAodha recalls the moment she learned that something was wrong. “It was early on the Sunday morning. A friend rang to say something was after happening back west, and when I checked my mobile I saw there was a message from Valentia Coast Guard. I heard the message and was about to ring them when they rang again to say a call had been sent out from the Tit Bonhomme. The information they had at this stage was that there was one survivor and there were sightings of maybe two more.”

Ui hAodha’s thoughts turned immediately to the couple’s five children. The two youngest, 19-year-old Dearbhaile and 22-year-old Ferdia, were both at home, but 24-year-old Micheál was in Galway with his mobile switched off, 25-year-old Ealga was in Korea and 26-year-old Lia was on holiday in Cuba.

There followed frantic efforts to ensure that Micheál, Ealga and Lia would not learn of the accident before she could speak to them. It was only then that she, along with Ferdia and Dearbhaile and her brothers, Tomás and Paddy, headed west to Union Hall.

“I remember arriving on the pier and seeing Martin Deasy, and I suppose that was the first time that it dawned on me that something serious was after happening. He asked me did I want to go out, so I put on a life jacket and went out. Ferdia came with me.

“We went out to Adam’s Island, and you could see the boat. At that stage you just look and stare, and you go numb. I don’t think our brains allow us take in everything. It’s almost like being thrown into cold water. You just freeze.”

As Ui hAodha returned to the pier, still wondering what she was going to tell Ealga in Korea and Lia in Cuba, a multiagency search was beginning under the direction of the Irish Coast Guard and the Naval Service. It would run for three weeks.

Coastguard helicopters from Shannon and Waterford were quickly on the scene, along with RNLI lifeboats from Baltimore and Courtmacsherry, coastguard units, Civil Defence teams and hundreds of volunteers from west Cork and beyond.

Naval Service and Garda divers had also arrived that afternoon, but strong southeasterly winds were driving water back up the harbour and making it impossible to safely search the trawler, which was lying in 12m of water.

Although no one was saying it on Union Hall pier that day, as the light dimmed and the search was stood down for the night the rescue mission was already turning into a recovery operation.

FROM ONE OF THE best-known fishing families on the south coast, the Kellys of Helvick, Ui hAodha says that, although her husband originally had no connection with the sea, coming from a farming family in Bunmahon, he took to seafaring with a rare relish and sense of fulfilment. They bought their first boat together, the Inis Eagla, in the 1980s. Hayes later bought other boats before acquiring the Tit Bonhomme. He was proud of the trawler and of the fact that the Mohamed brothers had been fishing with him for nearly five years.

“Michael was a good fisherman, a good seaman, too . . . He always said to me he never wanted to be lost at sea. He never spoke much about drowning, or the dangers, but he never wanted to be lost at sea,” she says as she nurses a cup of coffee and looks out across the bay.

Monday, January 16th, brought a clear blue sky to Union Hall as, accompanied by a Garda liaison officer, Pauline Reid, Abdelbaky Mohamed arrived on the pier, his arm in a sling and his eyes full of grief, to be embraced by 20 or so fellow Egyptians who had come to help.

His cousin Morad Gharib says that Abdelbaky was like a father to Wael, as they had lost their father when Wael was three. As is the practice in their home village of Borg Meghezel, on the Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, Abdelbaky had helped raise and support Wael.

“It’s difficult to describe. Abdel was like a father to Wael, while Wael’s family – he has a seven-year-old little girl and a one-year-old little boy – not only lost their father but also lost their main source of income, because there’s no such thing as state help in Egypt.

“In Egypt, if you have a son or a daughter, you keep working almost until you drop, and then the son or daughter takes over and supports you, so, for the families of Wael and Attaia and Saied, they not only lost their loved ones: they also lost their main sources of income.”

Like Ui hAodha, Gharib and the other members of the Egyptian community in Skibbereen and Union Hall, including Saied’s father, Mohamed, were trying to control the way news of the sinking filtered back to loved ones in Egypt – at least until bodies were recovered.

The day before, the Sunday, had seen the arrival of the family of Kevin Kershaw, born in Dublin but living in Clonakilty, who was making his first fishing trip, to see if he would like the seafaring life of a fisherman.

His father, Paddy, who arrived in Union Hall on the Monday morning, described his eldest son as “a diamond” and said that Kershaw had decided to go out with Hayes as he didn’t want to stay on the dole.

And so it was that the five families of the missing fishermen found themselves thrown together into a vortex of emotion, not knowing when or if the search for their loved ones would end. But already a pattern was emerging: the coastguard search was ensuring that hundreds of coastguard, Civil Defence, Garda and volunteers were being deployed effectively. Each morning, coastal teams would report and be allocated an area to search. Sea searchers, using every type of craft, from 30m trawlers to small boats with outboard motors to kayaks, were being directed around the bay to trawl troughs or search inlets.

And supporting the search effort was an extraordinary community response, with locals setting up a pierside kitchen to feed the hundreds of searchers. Located in a simple four-metre-long tent, with rain rattling off the plastic-sheeting roof, it became a shelter and a beacon.

Local women like Pamela Deasy, Yvonne Deasy, Natalie Limerick and Bernie Nyhan ladled out steaming-hot soup to cold volunteers, who warmed their hands on the polystyrene cups, or tucked into Irish stew, shepherd’s pie or sandwiches.

And the tragedy and search moved people, such as the baker in Cork city who got up early one day and brought 200 doughnuts on his motorbike, or the woman from Rosscarbery who looked up Egyptian cuisine on the internet and came down with a specially made chickpea dish.

Tom Hayes said later, at his brother’s funeral, that the pier kitchen had become “a legend, the hub of the search”. Two months on, Ui hAodha acknowledges its importance. “It wasn’t just tea that they were serving there: it was hope. Without them, people couldn’t have continued.”

At the centre of keeping up morale was the Union Hall-born priest Fr Pierce Cormac. He had gone to the pier at about 7am on the Sunday that news of the tragedy began to break. Over the next month he was a constant figure on the pier, supporting the families.

That first Sunday Ui hAodha asked him if he would say a rosary on the pier, and over the next 25 days the multifaith prayer service became a constant feature, the echo of voices rising above wind and rain to mark the end of another day of searching.

Morad Gharib says: “We would have said our own prayers anyway, but it was brilliant when Fr Pierce approached us and asked if we would like to join in the prayers. Every step of the way, they asked how we wanted things done, and we could not have asked for more.”

Although the dive teams were stymied by bad weather, for those first few days the veteran local fisherman Bill Deasy, who knows the currents of Glandore Harbour better than anyone, remained confident. The bodies were in the bay, and they would be found, he predicted.

Four days later, Deasy’s confidence proved justified. First a team of Garda divers recovered Attaia Shaban’s body, at about 9.45am, no more than 50m to the west of the wreck. Then, around noon, Naval Service divers recovered the body of Kevin Kershaw in the same area.

The families grieved as the bodies were brought ashore, to a tent set up as a temporary mortuary, where they could spend a few moments with their loved ones before they were removed to Cork University Hospital for postmortems.

Locals bowed their heads in respect and solidarity as 30 or so members of the Egyptian community turned east out of the harbour, towards Mecca, and, opening their palms to the sky, recited prayers in Arabic for Attaia.

Later, person after person came up to offer sympathy and support as Kershaw’s distraught mother, Margaret Williamson, struggled to cope with her loss. Kershaw’s father later spoke of their relief at getting him back. “Our hopes and prayers were that Kevin would return, and he has returned in good condition. Actually, you would think he was only asleep. I kissed him, and you could taste the diesel.”

SWELLED WITH HOPE after the recovery of the bodies of two of the missing men, the other families and the searchers turned back to the sea, but it was another five days before the body of Wael Mohamed was recovered: he was found by a team of civilian divers on January 19th.

All three bodies had been recovered in the morning; for Ui hAodha, afternoons proved the most difficult time. “Once two o’clock came you felt it was over for another day, even though you still had to go through the motions of searching,” she says.

Gharib echoes her feelings. “The worst thing for me was when it gets after 3pm. That was the worst time ever, because you know there’s another day gone, and hope fades for a while. You come back the next morning full of enthusiasm, but the evenings were the worst.”

Naval Service and Garda divers continued searching around the wreck, but without success. On Friday, January 27th, Ui hAodha appealed for experienced civilian divers to help. The response was huge: 78 people from all over Ireland answered her call.

But despite a dive on the western side of the bay, co-ordinated by a local diver, John Kearney, to tie in with the Naval Service and Garda searches near the wreck and a combing of the shoreline by 350 or so volunteers, no trace was found of the two fishermen who were still missing.

“There was a particular week, the middle week, that we were so built up, thinking it will have to be today, but we had to stop doing that. It was just so exhausting. We had to recognise that we were going to be here for as long as we needed to be here,” says Ui hAodha.

Days came and went, January eased into February, the evenings began to lengthen, and hope rose and ebbed like the tide before building again for the weekend of February 5th – three weeks had passed, and bodies often surface after 21 days, as gas builds up in them.

Another appeal for civilian divers elicited a big response, with more than 50 coming to Union Hall. Again, however, the search was fruitless, and there was a sense of disappointment that Sunday evening as the Irish Coast Guard scaled back the official search.

It fell to Fr Pierce to try to keep spirits high. At the end of that’s evening prayer service he pledged that the search would continue with whatever volunteers were available over the coming days.

“Bill Deasy and myself had spoken that morning about what would happen if we didn’t find the bodies that day, and we had decided we were going to try and limit expectation, because there is no exact science to bodies surfacing on 21 days,” says Fr Pierce. “We were very conscious that the search was ending at one level but was continuing at another level, but we never used the words ‘scaling back’, and we assured the families that it would continue on a day-to-day basis. They were reassured by that, but it was difficult.”

People hugged and embraced on the quayside, and candles were lit at a small shrine to the missing men, at the eastern end of the pier. Darkness began to seep across the sea, but nobody wanted to leave. People lingered, their despondency and desolation palpable.

Yet the next morning Niall Twomey of the West Cork Civil Defence team could report that 40 people had turned up to search. The same number arrived the next morning. It seemed set to continue that way for the rest of the week. The people of Union Hall were not giving up.

Days later, on Wednesday, February 8th, Michael Hayes’s body was recovered. His brother, Tom, was one of the first on the scene when the body of the former cox of Helvick RNLI lifeboat surfaced on the eastern side of the bay.

Ui hAodha says, “I was in Skibbereen, and Ferdia rang me to say they had picked somebody up. We went back out to the pier, and when I saw Dearbhaile’s face I knew it was Michael. It was like you were frozen in time for 25 days and now there was this sudden release.”

She and the family had already begun to plan a month’s mind Mass for that Friday. Now, with their husband and father recovered, they could start planning a wake back at their home in Helvick. Before they left Union Hall, their thoughts turned to Saied’s father. “I went up to Mohamed,” says Ui hAodha. “I felt so sorry for him, because he looked so wretched, and he was concerned with us going and was probably wondering what was going to happen now. I told him we were bringing Michael home but would be back after the funeral.”

After seeing Michael Hayes’s body off from the quayside, his brother Tom and other family members went back out to search for Saied.

Ui hAodha and her family did not return to Union Hall, however, as, two days later, while they at home were planning the funeral with Fr Pierce, Bill Deasy rang.

“We were saying how we wanted to include a prayer for people who didn’t come home – we were so aware of that – and Bill rang to say Saied had been found, and it was a huge release. It meant so much, because Michael was the skipper and would have wanted to bring everyone home.”

As she prepares to return to Union Hall for the first time, Ui hAodha believes the Mass, which was to take place last night, is important not just for the families but also for the people of Union Hall, Helvick, Bonmahon and beyond, whom she can never thank enough.

“I do think there’s a special code among fishing communities around the coastline, because it is a very difficult kind of life. It’s very dangerous. It’s a place where people struggle to make a living, because you have to leave home and be gone for a long number of days,” she says. “When you go sea, all you have is the next boat to you, really, for days. I think there is a code that we do want to bring them home . . . I have no doubt, wherever it happened, we would have had the same response, but they were particularly good in Union Hall. They were incredible.”