More than 100 divers in sub-sea search for helicopter crew

Survey thought to be largest dive exercise of its type in efforts to find R116 winch crew missing for six weeks

A Coastguard helicopter taking part in the search for the missing crew members of Rescue 116. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

A Coastguard helicopter taking part in the search for the missing crew members of Rescue 116. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin


More than 100 divers qualified in search and recovery aim to undertake a sub-sea survey from first light today for two missing Irish Coast Guard airmen Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith off the north Mayo coast.

An air and sea exclusion zone around Blackrock island, location of the crash of the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter, had been lifted to facilitate the effort – believed to be the largest co-ordinated dive exercise of its type in the State’s history.

Divers trained in search and recovery, approved by the Irish Underwater Council and West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue, will focus on the western and south-western end of the island, along with Naval Service and Garda dive teams.

Large scale sweep

The dive exercise mirrors the large scale surface sweep of more than 8,500sq km of sea by some 110 fishing vessels, along with RNLI lifeboats, Irish Coast Guard, Garda and Irish Underwater Council rigid inflatable boats, a fortnight ago, following an appeal by Ciaran Smith’s sister, Orla.

On Friday evening, a team of 10 Army mountaineers and several Garda scene of crime examiners completed a two-day “360-degree” survey of the sheer terrain at Blackrock, marked by a lighthouse.

The detailed combing of the rock and its sub-sea perimeter some 13 km west of the north Mayo coast aims to establish if the two winch crew were thrown out of the rear of the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter when it struck the western end of the island in the early hours of March 14th.

Pilots Capt Dara Fitzpatrick and Capt Mark Duffy were the first two confirmed casualties, and the ordeal for the Ormsby and Smith families has continued for almost six weeks at this stage.

Safety paramount

Garda Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet stressed that safety would be paramount this weekend. It will be one of the biggest efforts by volunteer divers since the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme fishing vessel in west Cork with the loss of five fishermen in January, 2012.

Local residents are due to accommodate the divers, according to Mr John Gallagher, chairman of Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile. The local community centre in Eachléim expects to provide more than 400 meals throughout the weekend.

The Roscommon Solstice Choir will lay a wreath and perform several tributes to the four air crew at Blacksod and in Tirrane parish church on Sunday, as part of fundraising. Mr Gallagher said funds would be used primarily for a permanent memorial for the four air crew, while also meeting local costs related to the search.

Meanwhile, the decision to call out the Irish Coast Guard Dublin-based helicopter as support in response to a relatively minor injury has been criticised by a doctor at the Irish Medical Organisation conference.

Mayo GP Ken Egan questioned why two rescue helicopters worth more than €100 million and eight expert professionals were called out “all for a tip of a finger”.

The Sligo-based Rescue 118 was tasked with the medical evacuation 241km west of Mayo, and Rescue 116 was tasked for “top cover” or support, after the Air Corps said it was not available.

Massive resources

Mr Egan said “nobody seems to want to dwell” on the massive resources called out to treat the crewman’s injury, a severed thumb, which occurred after the fishing vessel skipper talked to a doctor in Cork University Hospital.

Medical sources have said that if the digit had been severed completely, time would have been of the essence in reconnection and would have justified a helicopter evacuation.

However, in this case, the man had not lost his digit, and the fishing vessel could have been advised to proceed to shore, while dressing the wound to prevent infection and possible septicaemia, a medical source told The Irish Times last month.

Criticising the “indifference of the authorities” to investigating this issue, Dr Egan said “surely someone has to go back and look at why the helicopter was called out”.