MEMBERS of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team say they have been left “absolutely devastated” at the loss of an Irish Coast Guard helicopter during the early hours of yesterday morning.
Contact was lost with the Dublin-based Rescue 116 helicopter around 1am off the west coast of Ireland and while one of the four-man crew was recovered from the water with critical injuries, she passed away in hospital yesterday afernoon.
Debris was spotted in the water and a search by helicopters, an Irish Aer Corps plane and local fishing boats focused on an area six miles to the west of Blacksod in Co Mayo.
The distinctive red and white Sikorsky search and rescue helicopter is a familiar sight in the south and east Down area, regularly assisting the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team to ferry people who get injured in the mountains to hospital.
The aircraft, which regularly takes part in training exercises involving the RNLI, Newcastle and Kilkeel Coastguard teams and mountain rescue unit and has an excellent safety record, was providing top cover for another rescue helicopter on a mission when contact was lost during the early hours of yesterday morning. The incident has been described as a “dark day for the emergency services in Ireland.”
Conditions were described as good when the helicopter, crewed by two pilots, a winch man and a winch operator, lost contact on its approach to a refuelling depot 150 kilometres west of Eagle Island.
Martin McMullan, the Mourne Mountain Rescue team’s co-ordinator, said its members are “absolutely devastated” at what happened, and said their thoughts and prayers are with the crew, their families and colleagues.
He said the rescue team has worked with the crew of R116 for the past 15 years, describing them “as an integral part of their operation.”
He continued: “We would work with the helicopter crew on rescue missions and training exercises up to 30 times a year. In fact, last weekend we worked with the crew on a rescue at Greenore. We had a very close and strong working relationship with the crew and know the individuals very well.
“What happened is very hard to digest given we have such a close working relationship with these men. It is very hard to put into words how we feel. This was a very well established search and rescue team and something catastrophic must have happened during the early hours of yesterday.”
Mr McMcMullan said the mountain rescue team worked very well with the helicopter crew, explaining they are often in an environment where they rely heavily upon one another.
“There is a strong bond between us and over the years we ended up in some unique situations. Working so closely with the crew you establish a strong bond and our thoughts are with the crew, their families and colleagues at this difficult time,” he said.
“The crew of R116 was part and parcel of the wider search and rescue family and it is surprising how small that actually is. As a result, the search and rescue family is very close and what has happened will be felt far and wide. For us, R116 was very much part of our team and we are absolutely devastated at this incident,” said Mr McMullan.
He added: “Something catastrophic must have happened. The crew of R116 were phenomenally skilled and experienced. They were flying a phenomenal aircraft which is second to none which makes this event all the more shocking.”
Declan Geoghegan from the Irish Coast Guard said the early morning accident had hit the “rescue family” hard and that while no one knows at this stage what happened, there will be an air accident investigation into it.
He added: “We’ll continue to search for the missing crew members until such time as we have recovered them and the flight recorder.”
Rescue 116 had been expected to take part in a major emergency services training weekend at Ballykinlar Training Centre early next month.