‘All we want is the truth’: families of Tuskar plane crash victims seek answers

Memorial service in Rosslare to mark 50th anniversary of tragedy hears of relatives’ grief

Families of the victims of the Tuskar Rock plane crash visited the crash site on board the LE Eithne Naval Ship on Saturday to remember their loved ones.   Photograph: Patrick Browne

Families of the victims of the Tuskar Rock plane crash visited the crash site on board the LE Eithne Naval Ship on Saturday to remember their loved ones. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

Even 50 years after the tragedy, relatives of the 61 people who perished when an Aer Lingus flight from Cork to Heathrow came down close to Tuskar Rock off the southeast coast have not got closure.

Only 14 of those who died when the St Phelim crashed into the sea on March 24th, 1968, were ever recovered while the cause of the disaster has never been definitively established.

“They’ll never rest until they know what happened,” Bernice Warne, whose grandmother Bridget O’Callaghan and aunt Hannah Burke were on board the stricken Aer Lingus Viscount, said as she accompanied her mother, aunt and cousin at a memorial service in Rosslare on Saturday afternoon to mark the 50th anniversary.

Relatives of many of the 61 were brought out to sea on a flotilla, led by the LE Eithne, on Saturday morning to visit the place where the St Phelim went into the water at 12.15pm on that day in 1968.

“Going out there today was like going out to their grave.”

Eleanor Laffan, daughter of Bridget O’Callaghan and sister of Hannah Burke, echoed the appeal for knowledge: “We want to know what happened. Somebody has to know. All we want is the truth, nothing else.”

Tragedy

She was living in Midleton in Co Cork at the time of the tragedy, and while it is five decades in the past, “can remember it as if it only happened this minute”.

An uncle was part of the months-long recovery operation which was mounted from Rosslare at the time and, according to Ms Warne, had been told of a distinctive coat Mrs O’Callaghan was wearing when she boarded the plane. “They were calling off the search and he said, ‘let’s go one more time’. They found her body, she was the last one to be picked up.” Hannah’s body was never found.

Another sister of Mrs O’Callaghan, Teresa O’Keeffe, thanked all involved in organising Saturday’s events for their “wonderful work” in helping to remember the victims and support the families. “It was superb.” Their fourth sister, Vera, was unable to travel to the ceremony but was also represented.

Many of the successors of those who took part in the lengthy and difficult recovery operation were present.

A new sculpture, made of granite from Mount Leinster and wrapped in an unbroken chain of 61 links representing each of the victims, was unveiled by the Mayor of Wexford Cllr Jim Murray and Bega O’Beirne, widow of the captain of the St Phelim, Barney O’Beirne.

Minister of State Paul Kehoe pointed out that the two pilots, Captain O’Beirne and First Officer Paul Heffernan, made “heroic efforts” to try to save the aircraft and the lives of those on board.

Disaster

There were wreaths laid in the Rosslare Harbour Memorial Park on behalf of the Government; Aer Lingus; the Irish Naval Service; victims not represented on the day; the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association and Aer Lingus Cabin Crew Association; deceased members of the Coast Guard in Rosslare; deceased members of the Rosslare Harbour RNLI; deceased members of the Rosslare Harbour/Kilrane Environmental Group; and the British Ambassador.

President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camp, Lt Cmdr Patricia Butler.

People from seven different countries were killed in the disaster and the flags of all were lowered to half-mast at the beginning of the ceremony.

Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns and humanist minister Sharon Walls, whose father Desmond was one of the victims, conducted an ecumenical service.

“We’re remembering an event, a tragic, dramatic and far-reaching event,” Ms Walls said, “but sometimes I think the drama of that event has overshadowed the people, the human cost involved, the 61 people whose lives were cut short and the very many people who they left behind.”