Rescue 116: From responding to a call about a minor fishing accident to utter devastation

Report outlines factors which likely prevented the crew detecting Blackrock Island

 Debris from the helicopter is  taken to the pier in Blacksod, Co Mayo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill /

Debris from the helicopter is taken to the pier in Blacksod, Co Mayo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill /

 

It was 9:40pm when the call came into a marine rescue centre in Malin Head, Co Donegal on March 13th, 2017.

A man on a fishing boat 140 miles off the coast of northwest Co Mayo had lost the top half of his thumb in an accident. The 50-year-old fisherman had been working with nets when his thumb was crushed.

The crew on board had stopped the bleeding, and the captain told the rescue centre the man was not in “excruciating pain”.

Three minutes after the call came into the rescue centre, an officer there called the captain of Sligo-based Irish Coast Guard Rescue 118 helicopter to task a crew to fly out and airlift the casualty.

The Malin Head rescue centre rang its counterparts in Dublin. Rescue 118 would be sent out to airlift the man, but another helicopter was sought to provide support during the operation. Rescue 116 was tasked for the job.

Less than half an hour later Capt Dara Fitzpatrick was in the car driving to the Dublin sea air rescue base.

By 11pm Fitzpatrick, her co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith were in the air heading towards the west coast. By then Rescue 118 was landing at Blacksod off Co Mayo, ahead of the mission.

While in the air Fitzpatrick turned to Duffy to ask him to calculate how long it would take the crew to fly to Sligo, and then onwards to the fishing boat.

They decided it would be quicker to fly directly to Blacksod to refuel.

Navigation waypoint

A little after 11:30pm Fitzpatrick told the cockpit she was going to “re-familiarise” herself with Blacksod. The crew entered a navigation waypoint into the helicopter’s system to guide them to the refuelling station.

At that point Fitzpatrick complained about the “bloody lights” in the cockpit, which she said “drive me mad”. Duffy agreed the lighting was “atrocious”.

Half an hour out from the destination Duffy took a look at a map, and did not note any obstacles along the planned route.

Winch operator Paul Ormsby mentioned he was looking forward to seeing the staff in Blacksod for the second time in a week. He had been part of a mission a number of days before that flew into the station, but weather conditions had been better than night.

Fitzpatrick said she had not been to Blacksod “in about 15 years”, with both Smith and Duffy agreeing they had not been to the area recently either.

Unlike air rescue crews on the west coast, the Dublin-based team would not have been as familiar with local features, such as small islands and other terrain, particularly at night.

As the helicopter began to near Blacksod, Fitzpatrick told the crew it was about to be “busy for a bit” and for them to “keep your eyes peeled”.

Rescue 116 was approaching Blacksod from the west, and flying at about 200ft above the sea.

Just before 12:46am winchman Ciarán Smith mentioned to the crew he was looking out the window at an island “directly ahead of us”, telling Fitzpatrick to turn the helicopter right. The pilots started to turn the helicopter.

A second later he repeated “Come right now, come right, COME RIGHT.”

Collision

The helicopter collided with Blackrock Island, 13km west of Blacksod, and then hit the water.

The left side of the helicopter hit the water first, killing co-pilot Duffy, whose body was later recovered from the wreckage.

Fitzpatrick was able to unfasten her seat harness, exit through the cockpit window, and inflate her lifejacket. However, Rescue 116 was plunged 10-40m down into the water.

The darkness, shock and cold water all limited her chances of reaching the surface, and her body was later recovered by an RNLI Achill lifeboat, which had responded to a mayday alert issued by the Malin Head marine rescue centre.

Despite extensive searches, the bodies of crewmen Ormsby and Smith were never found.

A lifejacket and helmet worn by Smith was recovered washed up in Elly Bay, near Ballina later that year in September. The lifejacket worn by Ormsby was discovered in a fishing boat’s nets, near Achill Head the following July.

A major report by the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU), published on Friday, said there were a number of factors which likely prevented the flight crew detecting Blackrock in time to avoid the piece of land.

The crew were “unaware” the helicopter was heading for the island, with the mission taking place at night in poor weather, it said.

Blackrock Island was also not on the crew’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, which alerts pilots if an aircraft is in danger of hitting land.

The AAIU report made 42 separate recommendations for reforms, and criticised both the Irish Coast Guard and air rescue service operator CHC Ireland.