Picture scenes from The Finest Hours and The Perfect Storm – films based on true stories of memorable rescues and tempests at sea – and you can imagine the exceptional rescues, outstanding bravery and devastating losses Lorna Siggins describes in her book Search and Rescue: True Stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116. While her steady and factual narrative anchors the text, her book is polyphonic with the sounds of helicopter blades, booming seas, demented winds, crackling radio transmissions and the voices of rescuers and rescuees.
With more than 30 years’ experience as a journalist and as former marine correspondent with The Irish Times, Siggins knows how to present details in a clear and non-judgmental way. She shows that self-scrutiny, improvements to safety standards, operational procedures and the safety kit provided by an organisation, too often follow a catastrophe in which those who put their lives at risk to save others, lose their own during a mission.
The first section of the book examines the circumstances of the tragic deaths of Irish Coast Guard volunteer Caitríona Lucas in September 2016, followed six months later by the loss of captains Dara Fitzpatrick and Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith on board the Irish Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue 116 while on service 13km west of Blacksod, Co Mayo, in March 2017. Siggins tells the reader about each of these individuals, their lives, families, hobbies, their dedication, skill and selflessness with great sensitivity. While recounting the many official enquiries, investigations, politicking and recommendations, she focuses on the human cost of institutional deficiencies. Reading about the overwhelming national and international response to the 116 search and rescue operation that became one of search and recovery is deeply moving.
In each story, Siggins gives space for families, friends and rescuers to speak, and as their words lift off the page they, to quote Heaney, catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The sea is autonomous, without regard for borders or politics. In many of the challenging rescues, Siggins describes the multi-agency response and co-operation in the air from the Irish Coast Guard, Irish Air Corps and RAF, on the water from RNLI lifeboats, sub-aqua teams, from Mountain Rescue, the Garda and ambulance service. As news of a search becomes known, she tells how communities throughout the country galvanise to offer support, with fishing fleets putting to sea after being briefed by the Coast Guard and the RNLI, and sustenance brought down to the shore for families and emergency personnel.
Heroic rescues by helicopter crews and RNLI volunteers, often at sea for more than 20 hours, populate the book. Demonstrations of airmanship and seamanship in moments of sheer terror, abound. One such rescue was of a fisherman in the water off Arranmore Island in Co Donegal. His boat had capsized and was sinking and he was clinging to a lifebuoy in a 6m swell. The Arranmore all-weather RNLI lifeboat was “on scene in 10 minutes” but unable to approach due to the “extreme sea state”. Gary Robertson, winchman on Rescue 118, found the fisherman “wrapped” in heavy rope which was attached to the lifebuoy “which in turn was still tethered to the submerged boat”; a perilous situation for all. The skill of the winch operator to raise the winch, and of the pilot to “maintain a steady hover” permitted Robertson to cut the ropes now under tension. The fisherman had to be prised free of the lifebuoy to which he was clinging and both were lifted free of the swell and danger. He was taken to Letterkenny General Hospital where he recovered from his ordeal. En route back to their base in Sligo, Rescue 118 was tasked again to assist two surfers in difficulty; one was plucked from the sea by the winchman, the other was rescued by the RNLI Bundoran lifeboat.
In another distinguished rescue, RNLI all-weather lifeboats from Dunmore East, Kilmore Quay and Rosslare Harbour with “top cover” from Rescue 117 worked through the night to save nines lives and avert a major environmental incident when a 4,000-ton cargo vessel, the Lily B, lost power in storm force winds. The three lifeboats managed to get lines on the Lily B and hold her off the rocks until a tug arrived to take the tow, which in itself proved challenging.
In this book, Siggins chronicles the evolution of the the Irish Coast Guard air-sea rescue service, and gives captivating accounts of brave and selfless rescue missions led by the Coast Guard and RNLI lifeboats. Her book is thoroughly compelling.
Eleanor Hooker is helm and press officer at Lough Derg RNLI, a poet and a writer