An inquest has heard harrowing evidence about the final moments of Caitríona Lucas, the first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to die on active duty.
Ms Lucas (41), a librarian and mother of two from Ballyvaughan, suffered fatal injuries during a search and rescue operation off the Co Clare coast seven years ago. A member of the Doolin unit, she was assisting the Kilkee unit at the time because it was short of volunteers, the inquest heard.
Ms Lucas, along with volunteers Jenny Carway and James Lucey, were on September 12th, 2016 out searching for a missing man near Kilkee in an area known as the “pollock holes”.
In her deposition, read out by Insp Gary Thompson, Ms Carway stated: “Caitríona shouted ‘breaking wave’, it broke straight in on top of us turning us upside down, we were all wearing our helmets and we were all alive at this stage.”
Ms Carway said another wave hit and “we all got tossed about, the boat was upturned”. She said a further wave swept them into a sea cave.
She said they were hit by another “series of waves” and she saw “Caitríona lying face down in the water”.
“The radio was gripped to my hands and I was screaming for help, I was told ‘keep swimming – don’t give up’, but I didn’t have any more [energy] in me,” she added.
Ms Carway said her safety helmet was “ripped off” by a wave and she was “washed down to the side of the cliff face”.
She was wearing a flotation device but said she did not manually inflate her dry suit because “it impedes your movement in the water”. She was eventually airlifted to safety by the Shannon-based helicopter Rescue 115.
When asked by Michael Kingston, a marine expert representing the Lucas family at the inquest, if the Irish Coast Guard service had offered her any “supports” since the fatal incident, Ms Carway replied “no”.
She told the inquest jury of four men and three women, sitting at Kilmallock Courthouse in Co Limerick, that the Kilkee unit was “always” short of volunteer crew members and it routinely required the assistance of volunteers from outside units.
The court heard all three volunteers lost their safety helmets after being hit by a series of large waves. She said that if she had not been wearing her helmet when she was being “smashed” against rocks in the cave, she likely would not have survived.
Mr Kingston said Ms Lucas could be seen on video footage from rescuers’ cameras being struck by the Kilkee rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and sea rocks, rendering her unconscious.
When asked if Ms Lucas could have survived if she had been wearing her helmet at the time, Ms Carway replied: “It could have been the difference between her being here today and not.”
Mr Lucey told the hearing he saw “a wall of water crashing towards us”.
“It hit us and dragged us under. I remember being underwater, it was like being in a washing machine,” he said. “Another wave crashed into us, they just kept coming.”
Mr Lucey was swept into the cave where the “tide was coming in” around them. When he surfaced after being hit by another wave, he said his helmet was gone.
He said he initially saw Ms Lucas “on her back” on the water, but she ended up being “face down” in the water before being winched from the sea by Rescue 115 and taken to University Hospital Limerick, where she was pronounced dead.
When asked by Mr Kingston if he expected his helmet would have stayed on, Mr Lucey replied: “Yes.”
John Moloney, a retired Garda sergeant who was based in Kilrush at the time, recalled hearing the “mayday” alert and the words “capsized” screech over the rescuers’ radios. He said he saw Ms Lucas “lying face down and being tossed around at the mercy of the breaking waves”.
“She seemed unconscious. The Rib was upright and unoccupied near the cliffs,” he said.
The inquest continues.