Updated: 03/04/17 : 05:50:56
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Wreckage of R116 lifted but no crew on board

Rescue agencies have expressed “deep disappointment” at the failure to find any trace of the two Irish Coast Guard airmen after wreckage of the Rescue 116 helicopter was lifted from the seabed.

Almost three weeks after the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter crashed off the north Mayo island of Blackrock, Irish Coast Guard Dublin-based search and rescue winch crew Paul Ormsby (53) and Ciaran Smith (38) remain missing.

The Irish Times reports that the search will continue, Irish Coast Guard operations manager Gerard O’Flynn and Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet gardaí have said.

“We will continue as long as there’s hope,” said Supt Healy, who met the families of the men at Blacksod lighthouse Sunday evening.

After two long, arduous and often hazardous days at sea, with equinoctal weather conditions sweeping a water spout or mini tornado off Achill across Blacksod Bay, an inter-agency team worked with a west Cork salvage tug Ocean Challenger to lift the section of the aircraft from a depth of 40m.

“It was a significant amount of wreckage, and it was very important that we lifted it, not alone for the investigation but for the families... we were hoping there would be something underneath it, and we are desperately disappointed that there isn’t,”Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) chief inspector Jurgen Whyte said.

A prayer service at the wreckage for all four air crew – Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45), co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy (51) and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith – was said on the deck of the Irish Lights ship Granuaile, where the wreckage was secured. It will be taken to an undisclosed location and transported to Gormanston, Co Meath for further examination.    

Mr Whyte paid tribute to all those who endured an “extreme environment” – the Irish Coast Guard, Naval Service, Gardaí, Marine Institute and Irish Lights, and small vessels supporting the sub-sea effort.

Hazardous conditions

Naval Service diving section officer in charge Lieut Daniel Humphries described a four to five metre swell , heavy seas and a force eight south-southwesterly gale which made conditions “hazardous”.

The search for the two missing aircrew was focused on a narrow channel off Blackrock island, 13km west of Blacksod, where the helicopter crashed in the early hours of March 14th.

Capt Fitzpatrick was recovered from the sea within several hours of the crash, and the body of Capt Duffy was retrieved by Naval Service divers from the cockpit last Sunday, March 26th.

The AAIU had confirmed at the weekend that “no mechanical anomalies” with the aircraft had been detected in an initial analysis of data retrieved its health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) and multi-purpose flight recorder.

Investigators, who must issue a preliminary report within 30 days, will now focus on operational elements, including navigational aids, procedures and human impact.

The Irish Coast Guard, co-ordinating the search for the two airmen with the Garda and AAIU, had engaged Bere island company Atlantic Towage and Marine, after an attempt to tilt the wreckage using an airbag early last week was hampered by sea conditions.

A four metre swell throughout Saturday had precluded safe diving to hitch strops on to the wreckage.
Shoreline searches

A brief respite allowed the divers to attach the strops early on Sunday morning but by 3pm the island had disappeared from view entirely as the seas around Duvillaun and the Inishkeas whipped up a cauldron of spume.

When the tide slackened, the Ocean Challenger moved into position and the Irish Coast Guard Sligo-based Sikorsky S092 Rescue 118 was tasked to monitor the lift from above, as the Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) filmed from below.

To the north and south, RNLI Achill and Ballyglass all-weather lifeboats, Donegal’s Arranmore all-weather vessel and Sligo and Bundoran crews put to sea yet again, while mountain rescue teams from several counties assisted Irish Coast Guard units and Civil Defence in shoreline searches.

Back at the local community hall in the Gaeltacht community of Eachléim, north Dublin chef John Dowd was fighting back tears as he read messages of sympathy and support, including cards and letters written by children from all over the island.

“I used to see the S-92 pass over my house in Swords, so I just thought I’d get in the car with the trailer on Friday and travel up with food and gear,” he said.

As news filtered through that the men had not been found, one man summed up the heartbreak. “Is é an farraige – that’s the sea,”he said.