Flight tragedy  | 

Inquest into deaths of four R116 crew hears desperate attempts to contact missing helicopter

All those on board the Rescue 116 helicopter were killed when the aircraft crashed into Blackrock Island in the early hours of March 14, 2017.

The crew of Rescue 116; (left to right) Paul Ormsby, Captain Mark Duffy, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick and Ciarán Smith

Eavan Murray

An inquest into the deaths of four Coast Guard crew members of R116 has heard evidence of desperate efforts to contact the stricken rescue helicopter in the minutes after it disappeared.

The inquest into the death of four crew members of R116 got underway this morning in Belmullet, Co Mayo.

All those on board the Rescue 116 helicopter were killed when the aircraft crashed into Blackrock Island in the early hours of March 14, 2017.

In the days following the R116 tragedy, the bodies of Captain Mark Duffy and Captain Dara Fitzpatrick were located off the north Mayo coast.

The remains of two winch operators Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith were never recovered.

The inquest which will be overseen by the Coroner for North Mayo, Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald opened today and evidence from 17 witnesses will be heard over three days.

The first witness called in person was Mr Ian Scott, the Station officer at Malin Head Coastguard station.

Mr Scott defended his decision to task R116 to provide top cover to R118 during a rescue of an injured fisherman on a trawler 140 nautical miles off the west coast.

Departing from his witness statement Mr Scott offered his condolences to the bereaved families.

Mr Scott said he had 42 years of experience and felt the thumb injury received by the fisherman on the trawler was life-threatening as he heard the words “bleeding out”, “blood spurting”, “severe pain” and “amputation.”

“It is my opinion that man needed off that vessel. I would make the same decision now. I have to make decisions on the information I have.”

Coroner Dr Fitzgerald asked Mr Scott if he believed the injury to the fisherman, who caught his thumb while hauling in a fishing net, was “life and death.”

“It could well have been,” he replied.

Dr Fitzgerald asked if he still believed it was the right decision to evacuate the casualty “even in the middle of the night?"

Mr Scott said the person was bleeding and “If I had left him he could have died.”

Mr Scott said before he tasked R116 to provide top cover he initially tried the Air Corp and a British Nimrod fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft but neither were available.

Mr Scott detailed extensive efforts to contact R116 after he was informed by the lighthouse keeper at Blacksod lighthouse Vincent Sweeney the helicopter did not arrive as scheduled to refuel.

Mr Scott said he was very alarmed to hear at 1.06am on March 14, R116 was missing and uncontactable.

The coroner heard both Mr Scott and Mr Sweeney made extensive effort to make contact with the helicopter via radio and a satellite phone.

The inquest into the deaths opened in April 2018, when preliminary evidence was heard.

Proceedings were adjourned pending the completion of a number of investigations into the crash.

The coffin arrives for the funeral of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, who died in the Coast Guard helicopter tragedy off Blacksod, Co Mayo in March 2017 (Brian Lawless/PA)

A garda inquiry was finalised in 2019 resulting in a file being sent to the DPP, which directed no prosecutions.

Last November, a 350 page Air Accident Investigation Unit report into the tragedy laid out the chain of events that led to the accident.

The report found several issues relating to the navigational aids used by the crew on the night of the accident.

A total of 42 safety recommendations were made by the AAIU. 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.

Other recommendations were made in relation to the Department of Transport's oversight of SAR and Coast Guard operations, with the Aviation Authority and the European Commission also advised to take action on foot of the report.

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