Dunmore East RNLI wanted to pay tribute in their own quiet way to the fallen crew members of Rescue 116: to open a book of condolence and lay four wreaths at sea.
But the seafaring community, emergency services and public had other ideas, as about 1,000 people turned up to pay their respects to Dara Fitzpatrick, Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy and Ciarán Smith.
Chief among them was Niamh Fitzpatrick, sister of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, who spent 10 years with Rescue 117 based out of Waterford airport. Fitzpatrick said she had not expected the “thump” in her chest as she crossed the bridge into the city, as Waterford had meant so much to Dara.
She said the ceremony at sea was “one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen in my life . . . I don’t think I’ll ever see anything as equally beautiful and awful; awful that we had to do it and so beautiful in the way it was done.”
At 2pm a lone piper led a procession from the RNLI base in Dunmore East harbour to an assortment of vessels: the lifeboats of Dunmore East, Kilmore Quay, Fethard-on-Sea and Tramore; the Customs cutter the Suirbháir and Waterford’s Marine Search and Rescue vessel.
A half mile off shore the boats gathered. Fr Brian Power from Killea Church in the village and chaplain to the RNLI gave a short service, remembering not just the victims of this latest coastal incident, but also the crew of the Coastguard helicopter which crashed in the sand dunes in nearby Tramore in 1999 and Coastguard volunteer Caitríona Lucas who drowned last September.
After his words “may god give them shelter and safe harbour” rang out, four wreaths were laid, a minute’s silence was observed, and then four white parachute flares lit up the grey skies above.
It was a poignant moment for all those on sea and land, many of whom were no strangers to losses at sea.
Among the hundreds crowded on to the harbour wall were fishermen and their families, members of the South East Mountain rescue who had travelled from all over the southeast, firemen, civil defence and paramedics.
John Hearne, the metropolitan mayor of Waterford City and himself a fisherman, remembered the people he had known who drowned at sea.
“I was shipwrecked myself one time and I know the value of the rescue services, to know they’re coming is great and when they get you off it’s absolutely fantastic . . . but to think that people are coming for you and they didn’t get to you because they were lost at sea is absolutely terrible.”
After the flares, Rescue 117 flew over the vessels twice. On the second pass, a winchman was lowered. The crowds applauded and the song Angel by Sarah MacLachlan played over the loudspeakers.
Neville Murphy, a winch operator on Rescue 117 based out of Waterford Airport and a volunteer on the Dunmore lifeboat, worked with Dara Fitzpatrick for many years in Shannon and Waterford. He said he knew honouring his friend would be a special moment. “When we turned the breakwater and saw the crowd on the wall, I’ve never seen anything like it and what made it so special was having Niamh with us on the boat . . . it was like having Dara with us.”
Niamh Fitzpatrick paid tribute to all those involved in the memorial. “There are some days when you can’t get off the floor and some days when you’re fine. And that will all change in time . . . she’s not going to see Fionn [her son] grow up. She’s not going to be there . . . and for me things like this here help”.