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14-year-old who died at Hook Head 'fell 45ft into open water' during rescue operation

Aoife Winterlich died in hospital five days after she and a friend were swept to sea at Hook Head.

Hook Head lighthouse in Co Wexford
Hook Head lighthouse in Co Wexford
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE AIR ACCIDENT Investigation Unit has published its report into the search rescue operation attempted in December 2015 at Hook Head, Co Wexford which later ended in the death of a 14-year-old girl.

Aoife Winterlich died in hospital on 10 December 2015, five days after the incident which saw her and a teenage boy swept into the water at Hook Head.

A rescue helicopter crew attended the scene and attempted to lift the pair to safety.

In their report, the AAIU acknowledge that during the winching operation, the girl slipped from the rescue strop and fell into the water from a height of 45ft.

The full report – which can be read here – delves into the circumstances behind the rescue mission, the equipment used, the training that the responders had, and their conduct in the course of the rescue.

When the helicopter reached the scene, a winchman was lowered and attempted to rescue the two teenagers by bringing them aboard the helicopter.

At this point, the pair had been in the water at least 12 minutes.

The report said: “When the winchman entered the water he was faced with the task of recovering a male casualty and a female casualty who was unresponsive.

The winchman was of the opinion that if he winched the female casualty to the helicopter first, then the male casualty may have been unable to remain afloat until the winchman returned.
He considered the location of the casualties, their physical condition and the lack of available local assistance. He concluded that lifting both casualties simultaneously was the only viable course of action.
The investigation considers that the winchman made a reasonable decision given his perception of the prevailing circumstances, the imminent risk to life and the consequent time pressure he faced.

The investigation acknowledged the effort put in by the winchman to place each person into a rescue strop, and praised the “exceptional effort” made by the male teenager in keeping Winterlich afloat until the helicopter arrived.

As the girl was unconscious as she was being lifted, she slipped through the rescue strop and “fell from a height of approximately 45ft into open water of at least 10m depth”.

The time between the fall and the winchman reaching her again was around 31 seconds.

No evidence of wear and tear, damage or failure of the rescue strop used during the mission.

When they contacted the manufacturer of the strop, the maker said that it does not provide guidance on the use of strops to lift unconscious casualties.

The manufacturer did say however, that other methods of lifting casualties, such as the reverse lift, are possible but should only be considered in the most extreme situations.

Concluding their report, it is recommended that Search and Rescue crews are provided with documented guidance that can be used to “assess and address the operational and medical risks associated with winching casualties, whether conscious or unconscious, by use of a helicopter rescue strop”.

Read: 14-year-old girl swept into the sea at Hook Head dies in hospital

Read: Investigation after teenage girl rescued from water at Hook Head was dropped back into the sea

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Sean Murray

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