A preliminary inquest into the deaths of four Irish Coast Guard air crew on board the Rescue 116 helicopter which crashed off the north Mayo coast last year has heard that “everything that could be done was done” to find the two missing winch crew.
Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) chief inspector Jurgen Whyte told the inquest in Belmullet, Co Mayo, that the search was "very challenging", and the helicopter could not have come down in a more difficult location.
Four air crew – Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy, winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith – died in the crash at Blackrock island 13km west of the Mullet peninsula in the early hours of March 14th, 2017.
The inquest, which was adjourned pending continuing investigations, was convened by coroner Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald to issue death certificates for all four, including the missing winch crew of Mr Ormsby and Mr Smith.
At the hearing in Belmullet Civic Centre, Mr Whyte said he had been head of search and rescue with the Air Corps for 20 years, but this particular mission was "the most challenging and most difficult" in his career, involving a number of agencies.
The Sikorsky S-92 helicopter was lying “literally between a rock and a hard place”, between Blackrock island and a smaller rock known as Parrot island, he said. The helicopter’s tail was found on Blackrock island, but there were no personal items,and this led the search team to believe that three crew members had remained within the confines of the helicopter on impact, he said.
The inquest heard that the body of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick was recovered from the water by the RNLI Achill lifeboat at a location southeast of Blackrock island at 2.37am, just under two hours after the last recorded contact with Rescue 116.
RNLI Achill lifeboat coxswain David Curtis described how she appeared to be lifeless in the water, and the lifeboat crew administered cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Sea conditions were extremely rough, he said, and the crew administering CPR had to be held in position by their colleagues on deck, he said.
At about 3am, after about 25 minutes, the crew made the very difficult decision to stop CPR and make Capt Fitzpatrick’s body secure. The Achill lifeboat continued searching for her three colleagues, along with the Sligo-based Rescue 118 helicopter.
Irish Coast Guard Rescue 115 winch operator Eamonn O’Broin told the inquest how his crew was tasked to join in the search and arrived on scene at 3am. By then, the Achill lifeboat had located Capt Fitzpatrick, he said. He had known her for 25 years and she was a close friend.
“We were trying desperately to look for our colleagues in a search area southeast of Blackrock,” Mr O’Broin said. The RNLI Ballyglass lifeboat joined the search at 3.20am, and two fishing vessels were also approaching from the north to assist. Rescue 115 finished its search over Blackrock lighthouse but could not detect any sign of missing crew, and it then flew Capt Fitzpatrick’s body to Mayo General Hospital, he confirmed.
The inquest heard how Capt Fitzpatrick had been pronounced dead at 9.27am at Mayo General Hospital, but coroner Dr Fitzgerald noted that it would be more correct to state that she was dead on being recovered by the lifeboat. She confirmed a deposition from deputy State pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan that the cause of Capt Fitzpatrick's death was due to drowning, and there were no contributory factors.
Naval Service chief petty officer and diver Courtney Gibbons told the inquest how he and colleague Leading Seaman Donal O'Sullivan had recovered the body of co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy from the helicopter wreckage on March 26th in about 36 metres of water some 100m from Blackrock island. His body was taken to shore by the LE Samuel Beckett and was identified by Loy McParland, a close friend and former Irish Coast Guard colleague, before transfer to Mayo General Hospital for a post mortem.
Dr Fitzgerald confirmed a deposition from deputy State pathologist Dr Michael Curtis that Capt Duffy had died from multiple injuries sustained in the helicopter crash. Given the extent of his injuries, his death could have been almost instant, Dr Fitzgerald noted.
Chief Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet Garda gave an overview of the continued extensive search for the two winch crew over a 42-day period, involving a number of agencies, along with fishermen, voluntary divers and members of the community.
Extended search area
Mr Whyte said that after the helicopter wreckage was lifted, the search area was extended out. “In my opinion, everything that could be done was done under very challenging conditions,” he said.
The coroner confirmed cause of death for Mr Ormsby and Mr Smith as being lost at sea. She paid tribute to the families and to the bravery of the search teams, and adjourned the proceedings under section 26 of the 1962 Coroners' Act at the request of Insp Gary Walsh of Belmullet Garda.
Insp Walsh confirmed that a joint Garda/Health and Safety Authority (HAS) investigation had been delayed by documentation sought from "different parties".
“We are trying to expedite the process as best we can,” Insp Walsh said, and a file would be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecution.
The Garda/HSA investigation, which was separate to that of the AAIU, was being held to determine any negligence, culpability or criminal liability by anyone involved, he said.
Tributes were paid to the crew by family members,with Niamh Fitzpatrick describing how her sister, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, "lived her short life to the full" with an emphasis on "values such as kindness and integrity".
“Family and friends were hugely valued, appreciated and very precious to her; she didn’t just say that, she lived that,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.
In statements read by Garda Sinéad Barrett, winch operator Paul Ormsby was remembered by his family as a “loving, heart-warming man whose jokes could brighten you up on your worst days”. His kindness and “soft nature” were such that he would “never let a person go in need”, and he was “always there” for his sister Angela, niece Jennifer, nephew David and his best friend, Doc.
Winchman Ciarán Smith was remembered as “a family man, a loving husband and an amazing dad”, who had achieved so much during his time with the Air Corp and Irish Coast Guard, and had built a “lovely family home” with “beautiful gardens that provide the deep roots for the tree that is his own family”.
Three branches reaching upwards are his three daughters, carrying on his legacy and values. Not only had he conducted hundreds of rescues, saving lives and winning awards, but he had also travelled three times to South Africa to volunteer for the Niall Mellon Trust and had raised more than €20,000 for numerous charities in four Race Around Ireland cycling events.
The AAIU is still compiling its final report, and has issued two initial statements. Its preliminary report published within a month of the crash focused on anomalies in the flight navigational information, while a separate ground proximity warning system, which is not a primary navigational tool, did not have Blackrock island in its database.
The preliminary report also identified a flaw in the installation of satellite locator beacons on crew lifejackets.
The AAIU’s interim statement last month called on the Minister for Transport to conduct a “thorough” review of search and rescue aviation operations in the State and recommended that CHC Ireland – the air crew’s employer – should review its safety management systems.