Unspeakable grief as quiet town becomes scene of nightmare
The quiet coastal town of Blacksod was yesterday turned into a scene of tragedy as Irish Coast Guard members worked tirelessly throughout the day to locate three of their own on the darkest of days.
Mark Duffy, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby remain missing while Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was pulled from the sea but tragically later pronounced dead.
As the debris of their downed helicopter, R116, was brought to shore, the full extent of what occurred eight miles off the coast was laid bare.
Several small rigid inflatable boats (ribs) and larger fishing vessels returned to the coast at Blacksod Lighthouse from early morning, each bringing pieces of the helicopter that were scattered in a two-mile radius.
One vessel returned with the fuel tanker. Another returned with a door of R116. Later on, a tail fin with the words "Coast Guard" was lifted on to the pier.
A member of An Garda Siochana and the Air Accident Investigation Unit were brought aboard the LE Roisin as the search continued.
The Defence Force vessel had joined the operation in the morning. Local fisherman, who said they were doing their part for the local community, also joined the search.
Men and women from the local heritage centre arrived in the afternoon, bringing sandwiches to the Coast Guard workers who had been searching non-stop throughout the night and early morning.
In a touching moment amid the tragedy playing out, a rescue worker was embraced by her colleagues after returning on a helicopter from the search mission. Despite losing one of their own, they battled on in the search for the three missing men.
Concerns had been raised throughout the day about the possibility of conditions deteriorating - but the weather held out, allowing the full-scale operation to continue until nightfall.
Local man Henry Keane, whose son Sean had been helping clear the debris on a shipping vessel, said the community was rallying around to help in any way they could.
"Sean has been out on the boat since around 8am helping with the search. Everyone here is just trying to do their bit to help. It's an awful tragedy," he said.
Gary Bohan from Belmullet, who is involved in the operation and spent the morning recovering debris in a rib, said he had never come across an aviation accident of this scale.
Shortly after 6pm, buses carrying the family of those missing arrived at the lighthouse. There they met by a local priest and rescue workers.
Among them were parents, partners, siblings and children of the Coast Guard members who were aboard R116 when it went down. Tributes were also being paid to Capt Fitzpatrick, who was described as an experienced and brave pilot by her family and colleagues. VS&T Operations Manager of the Irish Coast Guard Gerard O'Flynn described her as a highly experienced pilot.
"Outside of her work as a pilot, she did an enormous amount of work on water safety and was always available to do school visits and promote water safety," he said.
"For all of us involved in the coast guard and for particularly her family it has come as a complete shock."
As darknes fell and the conditions deteriorated, the search wound down for the night, although some crews continued their work.
Speaking to the media, Mr O'Flynn said the chances of those missing surviving was decreasing as time passed.
"The search will continue, albeit at a reduced level," he said last night.
''Recovery of debris has been a feature of the search all day. I think you saw a bigger piece come in there and that's all part of your Accident Investigation Unit and will be all taken into storage.
"Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the level of hope does go down but you never know, pilots are exceptionally well-trained people.
"They're exceptionally physically fit so you know, you hang onto a thread of hope, but you have to be fearful that with the passage of time that the chances of people surviving is reducing."
Today the brave Irish Coast Guard members will continue in the search for their own, as mystery still surrounds how the tragedy took place.
For now, the families will cling to hope and the community will rally around for the dark days ahead.