Only survivor of fatal boating incident tells of desperate phonecall for help

Dessie Keenan fought back tears as he recalled the events at inquest of Gerry Doherty and Thomas Weir

The only survivor of a sea tragedy which claimed the lives of an uncle and nephew off the coast of Co Donegal has told of their harrowing last moments.

Gerry Doherty from Burt and his nephew Thomas Weir from Scotland drowned off the Inishowen Peninsula in July, 2018, when their 19ft boat capsized.

Dessie Keenan fought back tears as he recalled the events at a double inquest into the men’s deaths at Letterkenny Courthouse.

Mr Keenan (45) told how he must have been on a hundred trips with his father-in-law Gerry (63).


He described how, on the day in question, they had loaded up the boat and had been drifting in an out towards the coastline while fishing.

However, their engine failed and they anchored the boat as they tried to restart the engine.

Suddenly the boat began taking on water and Mr Keenan found himself ankle-deep in water and a short time later it was up to his knees.

He said he saw panic in Mr Doherty’s face and he knew they were “in bother”.

Gerry Doherty told his nephew to get the three life-jackets and then told Mr Keenan to call the coastguard before the boat suddenly capsized.

Mr Keenan’s frantic phonecall pleading for help was connected to the Emergency Call Answering Centre (ECAS) in Navan which was played to the coroner’s court.

People wept as he was heard pleading on the recording “I need the coastguard, yeah off Malin Head, the boat is sinking, the boat is sinking...”

All three were then thrown into the water.

Neither Mr Keenan or Mr Doherty were wearing a life-jacket but Thomas Weir (16) had managed to put one on.

Mr Keenan said he managed to hang onto a pink “fender” floating device connected to the boat.

He said Thomas Weir had circled around the boat three times but was getting further away each time as he tried to shout at him to see how he was.

After a few minutes he realised Mr Doherty was face-down in the water and was deceased.

Mr Keenan clung to the fender for hours before a passing fisherman, Philip Doherty saw him in the water.

He was taken to Port Ronan Pier and given medical treatment.

A deposition was given by local woman Veronica Gallagher who said that at around 4.30pm she noticed a body on the shoreline facedown.The body was later identified as that of Gerry Doherty.

The Coastguard Rescue 118 helicopter crew, who had been on exercises in the area earlier, found teenager Thomas Weir at around 4.05pm. He was taken to Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry where doctors attempted to save his life but he died.

Emergency call

A large section of the inquest dealt with the handling of the emergency call between the ECAS and Malin Head Coastguard Service who coordinated the search.

The call handler at the ECAS centre in Navan who answered the emergency call, Ms Alison Power, told how she asked her supervisor to contact Malin Head Coastguard.

Sean Diver, radio officer at Malin Head Coast Station, took the call from the ECAS centre in Navan. He gave evidence of receiving the call but told how the call dropped out. He tried a number of times to reconnect but all he received was a message minder from a Dessie Keenan.

However, at 3.30pm a man out walking on a cliff spotted somebody in the water and raised the alarm.

Malin Head Coastguard then began to coordinate a search operation in the area involving the Lough Swilly RNLI, Greencastle Coastguard, the Rescue 118 coastguard helicopter while a mayday was also sent out to all local vessels.

The inquest continues on Thursday.