Father of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick says family can 'grieve normally' after R116 inquest
Coast Guard helicopter team died off Mayo coast in 2017
The father of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick has said his family can finally “grieve normally” following the inquest into the deaths of the crew of R116.
Five years after the helicopter crash off the coast of Co Mayo, the devastated families now have answers.
The jury in the inquest of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Captain Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith yesterday returned a verdict of accidental death.
Speaking after the hearing, John Fitzpatrick said it had been a hugely emotional day.
Asked if the verdict would bring him a form of closure, he replied: “Very definitely. You can grieve normally now.”
After years of investigation, months of sea and land searches and many harrowing hours of evidence, how the R116 and its crew met their fate is now known.
The rescue helicopter crashed into Blacksod Bay, having been dispatched in what coroner Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald described as “treacherous” conditions in the early hours of March 14, 2017.
The Irish Coast Guard rescue aircraft crashed into Blackrock Island, a rocky outpost nine nautical miles off the Mayo coast after a “deadly fog” suddenly descended.
Errors with navigation and mapping systems on board the aircraft coupled with poor lighting in the cockpit rendered the island invisible to the crew until they were 12 seconds from impact.
Despite desperate efforts by Capt Fitzpatrick to move the helicopter to safety, the rear of the aircraft clipped the rocks and R116 ditched in the sea.
During the inquest, major questions emerged as to why R116 was tasked on the rescue mission that night.
The inquest found the tragedy happened due to myriad operational and human factors. One finding to emerge from the investigation was that R116 initially intended to refuel in Sligo rather than Blacksod, due to concerns by Capt Fitzpatrick about weather conditions.
However, during the flight from their base in Dublin, Capt Fitzpatrick was assured by her colleagues in R118 that weather conditions in Blacksod were fine, and the aircraft switched course.
In his evidence, Ian Scott, the station officer at Malin Head Coastguard station, defended his decision to task R116 to provide “top cover” to R118. Mr Scott ordered the medical evacuation by R118 of a fisherman whose thumb had been amputated 140 nautical miles off the west coast.
Mr Scott told the inquest he had 42 years’ experience and felt the fisherman’s injury was life-threatening because he heard the words “bleeding out”, “blood spurting”, “severe pain” and “amputation”.
“I would make the same decision now. I have to make decisions on the information I have,” he said.
Mr Scott said he was taken aback to hear subsequently that a doctor with whom he consulted on the night had said in a statement that she did not recommend a medical evacuation of the casualty.
In her evidence, Dr Mai Nguyen, then an emergency department registrar at Cork University Hospital, said when she spoke to Mr Scott the rescue helicopter had already been dispatched.
Dr Nguyen said from her memory she felt the decision to medically evacuate the casualty by helicopter “was probably an excessive thing”, but that it was not her call.
A recording of the three-way phone call between Dr Nguyen, the trawler captain and Mr Scott was played to the inquest. Dr Nguyen was heard asking the captain whether the injured party was “bleeding out” or if there was blood spurting from the wound. The captain said there was not.
The Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) report into the crash found that procedures governing the dispatching of a Coast Guard helicopter were not conducted in sequence.
In November, a 350-page AAIU report made 42 safety recommendations. Nineteen of those were addressed to CHC Ireland, the company contracted to operate air search and rescue (SAR) operations in Ireland.
These included suggestions to carry out a review of navigation aids, enhanced crew training and improved monitoring of missions and decision-making.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the body of Capt Fitzpatrick was recovered from the sea. Twelve days later, the remains of Capt Duffy were recovered from the submerged wreckage.
The bodies of winch operators Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith were not recovered, and their deaths were recorded as lost at sea.
Jury foreman Mark Ruddy became emotional as he read aloud their findings.
The jury found all four crew members died accidentally following a helicopter crash into the sea on March 14, 2017, in Blacksod Bay, Co Mayo.
Mr Ruddy called for there to be “definitive medical criteria informing any decision to dispatch an emergency helicopter. There should be no ambiguity as to who the decision-maker is”.
He added: “There should be reliable top cover available at all times, ideally not using another SARs aircraft.
“Based on clear evidence, errors in mapping and navigation aids contributed significantly to this accident.
“There needs to be cohesive oversight in relation to the various bodies and agencies who bear collective responsibility for the provision of these services.”
Mr Ruddy acknowledged “the strength of those individuals who gave evidence and to the families and friends of the victims who have for these past five years been forced to relive these harrowing experiences for the purposes of seeking the truth”.
“We offer our sincere sympathies to the family and loved ones of Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith,” he added.
Coroner Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald thanked the jury for their service and diligence in deciding their verdict.
“This tragic accident and the loss of four people occurred from a multiplicity of factors, and in normal conditions this accident would not have happened,” she said.
“But in their line of duty is there such a thing as normal? In undertaking search and rescue missions there is always some risk involved.
“However, in this particular tragedy, there were a few contributing factors.”
Dr Fitzgerald described the conditions the crew of R116 had to fly in that night as “treacherous”.
“I most certainly feel that [dispatching a rescue helicopter] should not be taken lightly ever, ever again,” she said.
“I convey my deepest sympathies to the bereaved families who have to live with this tragedy.”
Speaking on behalf of Ciarán Smith’s widow, Martina, their children Caitlin, Shannon and Finlay, his parents Michael and Theresa and his brother and sister, barrister Derek Ryan thanked the coroner, the jury and An Garda Síochána for their work and efforts.
“A very difficult matter has been dealt with efficiently and very sensitively by everyone involved and for that, thank you,” he said. He also thanked all the witnesses who gave “sometimes very difficult statements” at the inquest.
“Ciaran’s family wish to thank all those involved in the original searches back in 2017, An Garda Síochána, the RNLI, the Coast Guard, Ciaran’s friends and colleagues, the military services, local boat owners and local fisherman.”
Capt Fitzpatrick’s father echoed the comments of the Smith family.
Speaking outside the inquest, Mr Fitzpatrick said he and his wife were glad the inquest was over and thanked everyone involved.
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