The main wreckage of the Rescue 116 helicopter which crashed with four crew on board off the north Mayo coast over a week ago has been found in waters close to Blackrock island.
The Irish Coast Guard Sikorsky S-92 helicopter fuselage was located by an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) which was deployed from the Irish Lights ship Granuaile on Wednesday morning.
Relatives of the three missing air crew - Capt Mark Duffy, winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith – were taken out to sea by the Naval Service patrol ship LE Eithne and were close to the island when they were informed by Cdr Brian Fitzgerald that the wreckage had been identified.
However, ROV work has now been forced to stop due to severe winds, which are not forecast to ease significantly until Friday . The Granuaile returned to Blacksod shortly before 2pm, and the families came ashore in deteriorating weather .
The LE Samuel Beckett is taking over as on-scene co-ordinator.
At a press briefing at Blacksod pier, Garda Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet station described it as a “hugely significant step in the ongoing recovery” of three missing air crew.
“What we recovered is wreckage and we are looking at that actively at the moment and assessing what we have found,” Supt Healy said.
“We found parts of the helicopter that we can identify as R116,” Supt Healy said, and confirmed that it was in the location of the flight recorder signal, detected by hydrophone last Wednesday.
AAIU chief inspector Jurgen Whyte said that it was "hugely positive" and he was "hopeful" that the bodies of the airmen would also be found.
“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,” Mr Whyte said.
“It is just a matter of getting the weather window to the get the ROV down to work its way through the wreckage,” Mr Whyte said.
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.
Navy divers on board the Granuaile were actively assessing the next stage of underwater work, when weather eases, Supt Healy said. Marine Institute scientists are examining the ROV footage captured.
Mr Whyte said that the priority was recovery of the three crew members.
“Please God, if we’ve been successful in recovering the three crew members, we will focus our attention on recovery of the recorder, and then the aircraft if possible,”he said. He could not comment on the state of the wreckage, as he was awaiting a briefing from the ROV team.
Irish Coast Guard incident manager Niall Ferns said that it was a "significant development", eight days after the crash. He said shoreline searches were continuing, and air searches would also work "in unison with the entire operation".
The ROV was positioned laterally from the ship into a 40m depth of water in a narrow channel between the island and Parrot rock, where the signal from the helicopter’s “black box” flight recorder was detected by hydrophone last week.