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R116 helicopter crash deaths inquest hears visibility was ‘very poor and dense’

Captain Michael Scott, Engineer James Duffy, Tommy Fitzsimons and winchman Philip Wrenn (Niall Carson/PA)
Captain Michael Scott, Engineer James Duffy, Tommy Fitzsimons and winchman Philip Wrenn (Niall Carson/PA)

An inquest into the deaths of four Irish Coast Guard aircrew in the Rescue 116 helicopter crash has heard how the visibility in the moments before the crash was “very poor and dense”.

Rescue 116 crashed off Co Mayo at 12.46am on March 14 2017, during a search-and-rescue mission with four crew on board, after it struck Blackrock Island, 12 miles off the Irish coast.

At the time of the accident the crew were offering support to an operation to airlift an injured man from a fishing trawler.

The inquest, in Belmullet, heard how visibility dropped fast in the area moments before the R116 crew were due to land at Blacksod to refuel.

Coast Guard helicopter crash
(from top left, clockwise) Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, winchman Ciaran Smith and winchman Paul Orsmby (Irish Coast Guard/PA)

Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, the commander of the flight, was pulled from the sea in the hours after the crash and never regained consciousness, and the body of Captain Mark Duffy, the co-pilot, was taken from the cockpit 12 days later by Navy divers.

The bodies of winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith were never recovered, despite weeks of intensive searches of the seabed, surface and shore.

Vincent Sweeney, who worked as a lighthouse attendant at Blacksod, told the inquest how visibility can change in a matter of minutes.

He said that visibility was some 400 to 500 feet at the time.

He told coroner Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald that he often used reference points to check the visibility, as he had no modern or electronic equipment.

He said of the visibility on the night of the crash: “It can happen (drop) very fast, it’s very bad. You could hardly see your arm in front of you.

“It was more a mist that turned into a deadly fog. It was like soup. That happened within minutes.”

Coast Guard helicopter crash
Captain Dara Fitzpatrick (CHC/PA)

He told the coroner that he waited outside the lighthouse for R116 to land but could not hear or see them.

He said he became concerned when they failed to appear and tried to contact them with his handheld radio, but could not reach them.

Mr Sweeney, who has worked at the site since 1981, said he contacted Malin Head to establish if they had heard from the R116 crew.

Staff at Malin Head said they were surprised that the crew had not yet landed at Blacksod and within minutes they issued a mayday call.

Simon Sweeney, Mr Sweeney’s son, said he travelled up a hill, away from the lighthouse, to check visibility.

He said it was “very poor and very dense” and less than 20 metres.

Mr Sweeney said he attempted to contact R116 three times but did not receive a response.

In a statement read to the inquest, William Buchan, the captain of a fishing vessel, said one of his fishermen was badly injured when part of his thumb was amputated while out at sea.

Ian Scott, a radio officer at Malin Head Coast Guard, received the call about the injured fisherman and he made the decision to request medical help.

He told the coroner that he understood the casualty was “bleeding out, blood spurting and that he was in severe pain” and half of his thumb was gone.

He told the coroner that he did not think the fisherman could wait the 14 hours to make it back to land, saying he thought it was a “life or death” situation.

Mr Scott also said that he tried to get top cover by the Air Corps and to get a Nimrod from the UK, but it was not available.

Dara Fitzpatrick funeral
The funeral of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick (Brian Lawless/PA)

He also said the doctor he consulted about the injured fisherman did not object to his decision to send a recue helicopter out to the boat, saying he would make the same decision today.

Michael Scott, a commander of Rescue 118, told the inquest that while rescuing the injured fisherman he was told that R116 was missing.

While making their way back to land, they passed close to Blackrock Island where “almost immediately” they saw strobes and debris in the water.

Another member of the crew spotted a body floating in the water but they were unable to recover the body as sea conditions were too difficult.

An investigation published last year into the crash identified “systemic safety issues” and made 42 safety recommendations.

The investigation found that the aircraft was manoeuvring at 200ft and nine nautical miles from the intended landing point, at night and in poor weather conditions, unaware that a 282ft obstacle was on the flight path.

There were “serious and important weaknesses” with the operator’s safety management systems (SMS) in relation to navigation and the reporting of safety issues, “such that certain risks that could have been mitigated were not”, the report said.

Dara Fitzpatrick funeral
The funeral of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick at St Patrick’s Church, Glencullen (Brian Lawless/PA)

The investigation report found that concerns had been raised over the navigation system, the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), four years before the crash.

Michael O’Hara, a member of RNLI Achill Island lifeboat crew, described the moment they spotted Captain Fitzpatrick’s body in the water.

“We pulled the body on to the deck of the boat. The body was facing upwards in the water, the life jacket was fully inflated but was not wearing a helmet,” Mr O’Hara said.

“We placed the body on their back, but they were unresponsive, there was no movement and the eyes had a fixed stare and hands were cold.”

The crew then started CPR but Ms Fitzpatrick was already dead.

Mr O’Hara said he had to hold on to the crew member who was attempting to revive Ms Fitzpatrick as the sea conditions were so rough.

The inquest was also told that the helmet and lifejacket belonging to Mr Smith was found washed up on a beach months after the crash, but his body has never been found.

A yellow helmet belonging to Mr Ormsby was found in the water by a fisherman some four months after the accident.

The inquest also heard how Mr Duffy was found in the cockpit of the helicopter by Navy divers, but that rescuers struggled to remove his body as his leg was trapped in the wreckage.

Retired Superintendent Tony Healy described the effort that went into finding the missing men, involving 150 volunteer divers who searched around Blackrock.

Coast Guard helicopter crash
Paul Farrell of the Air Accident Investigation Unit arriving at Belmullet Civic Centre (PA)

He said it was very hard to search around Blackrock as there were six to seven metre high swells and strong underwater currents.

“I have been involved in searches of this nature for 39 years and it was one of the biggest and most comprehensive searches I was involved in,” Spt Healy added. 

The report into the crash said that the crew were “unaware” it was heading for the Blackrock island.

The ordnance survey imagery did not show Blackrock and instead showed open water. 

Paul Farrell, from Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) – who led the investigation, said that moments before the crash one of the winchmen detected the island and said “come right” a number of times, but it was too late and the helicopter collided with the terrain.

The helicopter then crashed into the sea and plummeted to a depth of 40 metres.

Mr Farrell also described the difficulty in spotting Blackrock, particularly at night in poor visibility.

“Having been out there, it’s not called Blackrock for no reason,” he added.

“I have stood on search vessels less than 200 metres and at night it almost morphs into the night and that is in relative good conditions. It is incredible.”

A preliminary inquest was held in 2018 to issue death certificates for all four crew, and was then adjourned.

The inquest has heard from all of its 23 witnesses.

In her address to the jury, Dr Fitzgerald said that the incident would appear to be an accident, but it is for the jury to decide.

The jury spent some time considering the verdict on Wednesday but asked for additional time.

The inquest has been adjourned until Thursday.