Prayers and reflection as Rescue 116 wreckage located

‘Hopefully we will be successful in recovering the three missing crew members’

A camera “eye” has  beamed back images of the main fuselage of the helicopter lying upside-down on the seabed. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins

A camera “eye” has beamed back images of the main fuselage of the helicopter lying upside-down on the seabed. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins

 

Eight days after Rescue 116 lost communication on approaching the north Mayo coast, relatives of its four air crew were on board the LÉ Eithne when Cdr Brian Fitgerald spoke to them. It was about 11am and the news was bittersweet. Main wreckage from the missing helicopter had been captured by high-definition camera on the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), deployed from Irish Lights ship Granuaile.

There seemed to be only one way to mark this as the LÉ Eithne steamed slowly past. Teresa Smith led the group in prayers and reflection for Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy, winch team Paul Ormsby and her son Ciaran Smith.

And there were no words for an occasion that the ship’s complement would never forget. The LÉ Eithne had taken the relatives of all four search-and-rescue helicopter crew on board earlier on Wednesday morning, and had just approached Blackrock island, a 13km steam from Blacksod, in gathering northeasterly winds.

The Granuaile had set off ahead of it at first light with Naval Service divers and ROV operators on board, along with representatives of the investigating team.

The four-tonne main frame of the Holland 1, with its two robotic arms and high-definition cameras, was then suspended in the narrow channel between the island’s southeast tip and Parrot rock. Its lateral “track” from the ship was 40m below, pursuing the faint signal from the flight recorder.

Fuselage images

Within an hour, its camera “eye” had beamed back images of the main fuselage of the helicopter lying upside-down on the seabed.

By noon, the weather was freshening. A decision was taken to retrieve the equipment for safety reasons, and focus on examining the imagery it had recorded. Both ships began the hour-long steam back to Blacksod as white horses galloped across the bay.

“We could hear the beacon, we were homing in on the beacon, and . . . we located the main part of the wreckage which is the helicopter itself,”Air Accident Investigation Unit inspector Jurgen Whyte said at a press briefing at Blacksod shortly before 1pm.

The next stage would be “a matter for the ROV operators and Navy and Garda divers, but obviously we will treat this with great respect, and if we can access into the aircraft then hopefully we will be successful in recovering the three missing crew members”, Mr Whyte said.

A force eight gale was blowing as the LÉ Eithne dropped anchor off Blacksod pier, and Naval Service rigid inflatable boats began ferrying the relatives back to shore. In one brief break between torrential rain showers, a rainbow lit up the sky across the mouth of Blacksod bay.