'Dark day' as air, sea and shore searches continue for missing crew

Searches resume for three missing crew members as investigators examine wreckage

Air, sea and shore searches are continuing this morning for the three crew missing from the Irish Coast Guard Sikorsky S-92 helicopter which crashed off the north Mayo coast early yesterday morning.

Naval Service and Garda divers are continuing to assess the situation before undertaking exploratory dives, due to the weather conditions and depth of water in the area - between 30m and 50m.

A second Naval Service patrol ship, LÉ Eithne, has arrived to assist in the search effort, and the Irish Coast Guard has requested the Marine Institute's research ship Celtic Voyager which is equipped with multibeam sonar to scan the seabed area.

Senior Irish Coast Guard pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45), the mother of a three-year-old boy, died in the crash which occurred shortly before 1am when the Dublin-based Sikorsky rescue helicopter was approaching Blacksod lighthouse for refuelling.

The three missing crew have been named as chief pilot Mark Duffy from Dundalk, Co Louth and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith from north Co Dublin.


President Michael D Higgins described it as a "dark day" in the history of the Irish Coast Guard.

Speaking in Washington, Taoiseach Enda Kenny extended his sympathies to the family of Capt Fitzpatrick, and spoke of the “exceptionally professional” Irish Coast Guard personnel.

CHC Helicopters, which employs the air crew on a contract to the Irish Coast Guard, said it was devastated by what it described as a “tragic accident”.

Capt Fitzpatrick was taken from the sea in the early hours of yesterday morning by the RNLI Achill lifeboat, after Malin Coast Guard station issued a Mayday alert and tasked a number of units.

The Dublin-based helicopter Rescue 116 was providing top cover, or support, for the Irish Coast Guard’s Sligo-based helicopter which was tasked to undertake a medical evacuation of an injured fisherman some 240km west of Blacksod.

The Dublin helicopter lost communications shortly after it had issued a radio message at 12.45am confirming it was landing at Blacksod for a normal refuelling.

It issued no Mayday and no satellite beacons were activated. Wreckage was sighted at sea by the Sligo helicopter on return from the medical evacuation, which was successful.

It landed the fisherman and located Capt Fitzpatrick at sea, informing the RNLI Achill lifeboat.

Throughout the day, the Sligo and Shannon helicopters continued a search of a five square kilometre (two square mile) sea area off Blacksod bay. The search is extending to Blackrock lighthouse about 13km (eight miles) west of Blacksod  which the helicopter would have passed on approach to landing.

A fleet of fishing vessels, including local Mayo craft and vessels from Cork and Donegal, assisted, as did an Air Corps Casa fixed-wing aircraft and the Naval Service patrol ship LE isín.

Naval Service divers were flown to Blacksod by the Air Corps and Garda divers also arrived, while a shore search involving people from the area extended across a 32km area.

Considerable amounts of wreckage were landed at Blacksod pier throughout the day, suggesting the craft had broken up on impact after a “catastrophic” incident.

Black box

The Air Accident Investigation Unit is examining the wreckage as part of its inquiry, and hopes to recover the aircraft's black boxes – the flight data recorder, and the cockpit voice recorder.

Aviation experts say the condition of the gearbox and other transmission components will be key to the investigation, which is the worst in Irish aviation history since the loss of four Air Corps crew when a Dauphin helicopter crashed on return from a rescue mission off the Co Waterford coast in July 1999.

A surface search continued overnight.

“It’s a search operation – obviously with the passage of time, the chances of recovery of somebody alive decreases, but we are treating it as a search operation and we don’t give up hope,” Irish Coast Guard operations manager Gerard O’Flynn said, when he confirmed at Blacksod pier that Capt Fitzpatrick had been confirmed dead.

Later yesterday evening, relatives of the crew were taken to Blacksod for a private meeting with the Irish Coast Guard.

Mr O’Flynn said it was a very difficult time and a terrible shock for everyone involved in search and rescue and all the emergency services.

The Minister for Transport Shane Ross said no effort or resources would be spared in finding the missing crew members.

Asked if he knew what had happened to the helicopter, Mr Ross replied, “We don’t know.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times