On Tuesday morning the 12th of March 2017 the Dublin based Sikorsky S92 Search and Rescue helicopter, Rescue 116, was coming into Blacksod Bay in Co.Mayo in the west of Ireland to refuel after supporting a rescue operation offshore when communications were lost. No May Day was received. Some hours later Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was taken from the water in a critical condition. She died later in hospital. No one knows yet what happened. As we speak the operation to retrieve the remaining crew members, for whom hope has faded, and the black box, continues in hazardous weather (RTE, 2017).
This tragedy will bring back a lot of memories here in the south-east. The first 24 hour Search & Rescue service was launched in Waterford in 1999. The Rescue 111, returning from its very first mission crashed into the sand hills on Tramore beach in thick fog with the loss of all on board. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, who lost her life in this weeks’ tragedy, the most senior pilot and one of the longest serving members of the SAR, was chief pilot in Waterford for over ten years from 2002. She became the face of our SAR team and was involved in a number of high-profile and successful rescues. She was also a member of the first all woman SAR crew which flew in 2013. The tragedy of Rescue 111 would have been etched into her DNA.
As an island nation we have held our SAR teams close to our hearts. When the government tried to cut the helicopter service to 12 hours from 24 in 2011 the reaction from a nation normally so apathetic forced the government to back down. When CHC, who lease the Sikorskys, tried to stop our rescue teams from posting updates and photographs on social media, the uproar forced another U-turn. Don’t mess with our SAR.
As someone who lives by the sea I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t seen Rescue 117 fly overhead, sometimes on training runs, sometimes on a mission out to sea or up the mountains, for fishermen in peril or injured walkers. The Irish Coast Guard, which co-ordinates SAR operations and which also includes the lifeboats of the RNLI, carried out 2,500 missions in 2016 (Lee, 2017). They ferry urgent cases between hospitals, from island to mainland, from ship to shore, and even to the UK, in all weathers at all times of the day and year. They bring Santa to Faithlegg house at Christmas. They post photos on their Facebook pages of the view from their chopper-a turquoise bay scalloped with foam, snowy mountains stamped with icy corries, spouting whales and racing dolphins-giving us down here with our feet of clay an all too brief but blessed look through the eyes of angels.
In a country whose leaders kowtow to everyone except the electorate, where corruption is endemic, where apathy seems to be the only recourse for the rest of us, our SAR teams are the only ones that go against the grain. They are the best of us. They do their job regardless of the weather or the people they rescue without thought to their own interests. They don’t discriminate between a fishing boat in a storm and a gobshite who has put to sea in a homemade boat of pallets. These are not people we can afford to lose and we know it.
Fishing and angling vessels are assisting in the search alongside the Coast Guard and the Naval Service. Local communities in Mayo are providing accommodation for family members and those assisting in the search. The rest of us stand by with heavy hearts.
For the amount of time they have spent on missions in the last eighteen years, the casualty rate among our SAR people is probably quite low yet also far, far too high. But their work is not and will never be without risk. Their courage in the face of the possibility of tragedy like the one that has occurred is what makes them great. Rest well lads, you will be sorely missed.
Captain Mark Duffy
Captain Dara Fitzpatrick
Winchman Paul Ormsby
Winchman Ciarán Smith
Flight is freedom in its purest form,
To dance with the clouds which follow a storm;
To roll and glide, to wheel and spin,
To feel the joy that swells within;
To leave the earth with its troubles and fly,
And know the warmth of a clear spring sky;
Then back to earth at the end of a day,
Released from the tensions which melted away.
Should my end come while I am in flight,
Whether brightest day or darkest night;
Spare me your pity and shrug off the pain,
Secure in the knowledge that I’d do it again;
For each of us is created to die,
And within me I know,
I was born to fly.
Impressions of a Pilot
Gary Claud Stokor
REFERENCES AND LINKS
Begley, I., et al (2017),Three missing crew members from Rescue 116 named as tributes pour in for mum-of-one Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, in The Irish Independent, [online], March 14th, available at http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/three-missing-crew-members-from-rescue-116-named-as-tributes-pour-in-for-mumofone-captain-dara-fitzpatrick-35531659.html [accessed 17/03/2017]
D’Arcy, C., (2017), Coast Guard Crash: Capt Dara Fitzpatrick key to high-profile missions in the Irish Times [online], March 15th, available at http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/coast-guard-crash-capt-dara-fitzpatrick-key-to-high-profile-missions-1.3010270 [accessed 17/03/2017]
Dttas.ie, (2017), About the Irish Coastguard, [online], available at http://www.dttas.ie/maritime/english/about-irish-coast-guard-0
Dttas.ie, (2017), Irish Coastguard Helicopter Information, [online], available at, http://www.dttas.ie/sites/default/files/publications/maritime/english/irish-coast-guard-publications/s92-compared-s61cr.pdf [accessed 17/03/2017]
Lee, J., (2017), Irish Coast Guard coordinated some 2,500 incidents in 2016 but helicopter callouts down on 2015, in Flying in Ireland, January 4th, [online], available at https://flyinginireland.com/2017/01/irish-coast-guard-coordinated-some-2500-incidents-in-2016-but-helicopter-callouts-down-on-2015/ [accessed 17/03/2017]
RTE, (2017), One Dead, Three Missing, RTE.ie [online], 15th, available at https://www.rte.ie/news/2017/0314/859533-coastguard-mayo-incident/ [accessed 17/03/2017]
Siggins, L., (2017), Rescue 116 crash: Wreckage found at lighthouse, in the Irish Times, [online], March 16th, available at http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/rescue-116-crash-wreckage-found-at-lighthouse-1.3013844 [accessed 17/03/2017]
Siggins, L., (2017),‘Something had happened and Rescue 116 had gone down’ in The Irish Times, [online), March 15th, available at, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/something-had-happened-and-rescue-116-had-gone-down-1.3010695 %5Baccessed 17/03/2016]
WLRFM, (2017), Tributes paid to former Waterford based pilot Dara Fitzpatrick,WLRFM [online}, March 14th, available at http://www.wlrfm.com/news/local/106115-tributes-paid-to-former-waterford-based-pilot-dara-fitzpatrick.html [accessed 17/03/2017]