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'We thanked them for the family members which they lent to this nation' - Anxious wait for news of Rescue 116

Shane Ross spoke softly of the families being “devastated”.

Image: Eamonn Farrell

DID YOU KNOW that up to two million North Americans can trace their ancestral journey to Blacksod in north-west Mayo?

Or that the weather forecast for D-Day was transmitted by the areas lighthouse?

Both of those facts are immortalised in plaques and memorials on the pier in this quiet north-west Mayo town. And, for many, they represented the town’s place in history.

A starting point for 3,300 emigrants in 1883 and 1884 and a vital part of the liberation of Europe. Not bad for a tiny dot on the westernmost reaches of Ireland.

Since late on Monday night, however, that has changed and the town’s name has become a byword for tragedy. Four Coast Guard crew gone. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick pronounced dead, her colleagues Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy and Ciaran Smith missing.

But over two days the locals of Blacksod and the surrounding areas have ensured that anyone who was here because of the tragedy – rescue workers, media, grieving families – know it too as a byword for compassion.

Rallying

LR CREW SEARCH 758A2090_90505542 Source: Eamonn Farrell

For a second straight day, the locals rallied around on land and sea. While the search for the missing crewmen became more specialised their boats were not required, but they continue to provide important support. Indeed, many are volunteers with Ballyglass Coast Guard, who coordinated today’s shore search, which brought debris back to the makeshift command centre at Blacksod Lighthouse.

And, says community co-op chairman John Gallagher, they intend to keep doing that as long as is necessary.

“We’ll continue on as long as we have to. We’re getting calls from all over the area of people who want to get involved and help.

The community involvement is getting wider as time goes on. We have five or six boats in the search and smaller crews and ribs bringing crews, food and equipment to and from the larger vessels.

Gallagher says the small coastal community is “shocked” at the disappearance of Rescue 116.

“People are shocked and quite sombre around the area. We rely on the emergency services every day because we’re in such a remote and disadvantaged area.

We’re used to helicopters coming into Blacksod all the time, flying in to rescue someone or going out to sea. These people are putting their lives in danger all the time for the sick and boatmen in our community.

Silence

The pier in Blacksod has been quiet since Tuesday morning.

Completely, utterly still despite the massive amount of work ongoing.

Every hour or so that surreal silence would be punctured by the overwhelming din of helicopter rotors landing on the pier’s helipad, which sits between the lighthouse and a holiday home as innocuously as any back garden, separated from the road only by a low wall and gate.

The silence was caused by a mixture of elements, the unprecedented nature of and scale of the tragedy, and the fact that everybody was simply waiting for news.

That complete silence was amplified when a dark minibus arrived in the afternoon, carrying family members of the missing men. The families have been in Mayo since late on Tuesday and the holiday home beside the helipad had been opened up as a base for them by the owner, a local man.

There, they could view boats coming and going from the search area eight miles out. This was “enormously difficult” for them during the morning according to the Coast Guard’s Gerry O’Flynn.

“They see a lot of activity, there are boats moving, aircraft moving and they’re just looking for hard information – they’re just clutching at straws.”

lr crew search 758A1201_90505434_90505434 Source: Eamonn Farrell

That hard information wasn’t coming through the afternoon, leading to more silence. Even the arrivals of Ministers Shane Ross and Kevin Boxer Moran didn’t lead to the chatter it might on another occasion.

Ross spoke softly of the families being “devastated”.

“It’s been a very, very devastating experience for them as is to be expected. We saluted them for the extraordinary bravery which they’re showing in this situation.

We also thanked them for the family members which they have lent to the nation and who have done such extraordinary work and have given their lives for other people.

“The idea that people whose purpose in life, whose motivation in life, was to save people have lost their lives themselves makes it all the more poignant. These people have saved some people’s lives in the past and have now lost their own. It’s a tragedy.”

Circumstances

Late in the afternoon came some real and, given the circumstances, good news – a beacon from the helicopter’s black box had been located close to the Blackrock lighthouse, some eight miles from Blacksod.

This was, all involved say, a significant breakthrough, one that some air accident investigations take weeks or months to come by.

“We’d regard this as a very important step forward in progressing the recovery stage of the search operation. We’ve detected a signal, the next stage would be to locate it. We’ve now begun the process of establishing its exact position,” Gerard O’Flynn said.

But with that news, and the confirmation that it was in the water – some 40 metres deep – came the realisation that this was now a question of logistics, timing, circumstances and luck. The tides, the sea and the weather must now cooperate.

For the time being, the families must continue to wait.

Read: Rescue 116: Black box homing beacon detected in search for missing crew

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