Thursday 27 October 2016

Coast Guard mum dies a hero as rescue mission turns to tragedy

Caitriona Lucas
Caitriona Lucas
James Lucey (left) is airlifted from the sea after he became trapped in a cave below the cliffs in Kilkee

A hero mum-of-two died while searching for a missing man off the west coast.

Caitriona Lucas (41) is the first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to be killed during a rescue operation.

It is believed she died after a freak wave struck her boat, knocking her into the sea off the Co Clare coast along with two other volunteers.

The library worker, and volunteer with the Doolin Coast Guard, was in a rigid inflatable boat (rib), searching for teacher David McMahon who went missing on Friday.

Ms Lucas was part of a three-person crew who began searching off the coast around Kilkee Bay yesterday morning. However, in the early afternoon, disaster struck and the boat she was in capsized in force five winds.

At 1.15pm, the coast guard received a mayday call, indicating the group was in trouble.

Search and rescue helicopters and boats were dispatched as part of a massive operation to find the volunteers.

Ms Lucas, whose partner Bernard also volunteers for Doolin Coast Guard, was taken out of the water by Shannon-based helicopter Rescue 115 at 2.15pm.

It is understood she had been in the water for around an hour when emergency crews found her unresponsive.

She was airlifted to University Hospital Limerick (UHL) but was declared dead a short time later.

Jenny Carway (51), another member of the crew, had been discovered and taken out of the water in a rib half-an-hour before Ms Lucas was found.


She was treated by paramedics at the scene and then transferred to UHL, where she was recovering last night.

Another of the brave volunteer colleagues, James Lucey (49), was discovered in a cave underneath a cliff. However, attempts to rescue him were hampered by the capsized boat which was blocking the entrance to the cave.

The Waterford-based helicopter, Rescue 117, arrived on scene to take over from their Shannon colleagues.

Mr Lucas was trapped on a ledge in a sea cave and conditions were too dangerous to mount a water-based recovery.

It's also understood that he had climbed some way up along the cliff face but was hampered by crashing waves.

Kilkee Fire and Rescue Service was also sent to the scene and set up climbing equipment in an effort to reach Mr Lucey by rappelling down the cliff face.

Members of Doolin Coast Guard, trained in cliff rescue, also abseiled down to Mr Lucas and remained with him until it was safe to effect a rescue.

With lifeboats and other rescue boats and jet skis standing by, he was winched onto the helicopter at 5.30pm and flown to hospital.

He was said to have been exhausted and badly shaken. There had been serious concerns about hypothermia, given the amount of time he was in the water.

He was also taken to hospital, where his condition is not thought to be serious.

The crew had been in an area that was known to be dangerous due to the presence of a reef.

Swells on the sea were around three- metres high and it is believed the boat turned over as the crew tried to get behind the reef.

An investigation has been launched into the tragedy.

An Irish Coast Guard official said that one theory was that the crew may have seen something in a cave before deciding to investigate.

"They are very well trained and have the best equipment, but when you go into the water anything can happen," he said.

"We think maybe they saw something in a cave and decided to go and have a look, before getting into trouble," he added.

He spoke about the bravery of volunteers who give their time and risk everything to help others.

"This is a black day for us. These are volunteers who risk their lives every day to save others. [Caitriona Lucas] was a hero," he said.

Ms Lucas was stationed at Doolin, and the two surviving volunteers were members of the Kilkee Coast Guard.


Taoiseach Enda Kenny has spoken of his great sadness on hearing of the death.

"To learn of the death of Caitriona, and of injury to her colleagues brings home the real dangers our rescue personnel face, and this awful news casts a dark shadow over people all over the island," he said.

"I want to convey my deepest sympathy to Caitriona's family, her husband Bernard, also a Coast Guard volunteer, and to the wider Coast Guard family," he added.

Local TD Timmy Dooley attended the scene yesterday. He expressed his deepest sympathies to the family of Ms Lucas and that of missing man, David McMahon.

"It brings into stark focus how volunteers risk their lives on a daily basis. We all owe these volunteers a huge debt of gratitude for the work they do and the risks they take on a daily basis," he added.

Councillor Bill Slattery was also at the scene and had been involved in the initial search for Mr McMahon.

"The mood was sombre enough when we were looking for David but this additional tragedy has just left people numbed," he said.

While the search for Mr McMahon was called off for the night, it is set to resume this morning. A number of volunteers also continued to search beaches in the area last night.

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