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The stories behind the people who search for bodies: 'We started after a young boy died when he slipped into the water'

“People are only out there because they want to be out there, there’s great camaraderie and we keep each other going in a search.”

THE SEARCH FOR a missing person usually starts out in hope – with family, neighbours and professionals searching all relevant areas.

It’s a difficult job for the people who belong to organisations – many of them who are volunteers – tasked with helping in searches.

Certain groups like the RNLI or the volunteer rescue crews around the country are called upon if a person has been last spotted near water.

Other groups, like the Civil Defence, are called out to head up land searches.

The work is difficult and draining, and at times it can be incredibly upsetting – especially when bodies are found.

So why do they do it? What keeps them going?

For many, it’s about a sense of duty – and about the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped bring closure to the loved ones of a person who has gone missing.

“I searched for 31 nights in a row”

Mick O’Sullivan is a volunteer with Dublin Civil Defence. He tells that he got involved after seeing the organisation on the news one Christmas:

“It was the time of the big snow and I saw them digging on the roads and at the entrance to hospitals and I thought that I could help doing work like that.

It’s to go out and help and do something.

O’Sullivan is also a dog handler and takes care of Max, the dog donated to the Dublin Civil Defence by the Peggy Mangan Foundation.

I was a dog handler with Customs so I was asked to take on the dog.

90315665 Gardaí near the scene of the discovery of the body of Peggy Mangan in Ballymun. Hundreds were involved in the search for the Terenure woman - who suffered from Alzheimer’s - after she went missing while walking her dog in 2013. Laura Hutton Laura Hutton

Thomas Kennedy search

The search for pensioner Thomas Kennedy was one of the first that Max was involved with.

The 81-year-old Dublin man disappeared when putting out the bins at his home in Finglas.

“I would arrive on the scene with the dog and we would search a different area every evening, ” says O’Sullivan. “We were out for nearly a month solid.”

“The dog can search an area in ten minutes. That could take a team of six people up to an hour.

We were out most nights, I think it was 31 nights in a row that I carried out searches with the dog, we were hitting an area every evening.

“From a personal point of view, I won’t say I switch off – but I’m purely concentrating on the dog and looking for a reaction from the dog.

CD MAX SAR K9 Handover Mick O'Sullivan and Max.

“I was keen for a result, you’re meeting with the family and you’re seeing what they are going through and it’s a case of wanting to help them as well as everything else.”

The body of Thomas Kennedy was eventually recovered in Blackpool, seven months after he went missing. What exactly happened to the pensioner remains a mystery.

O’Sullivan was “very much relieved” when the body was found.

It’s a grief-ridden relief, it’s closure. I don’t like using the term, but otherwise there’s always a shadow of doubt.

Speaking about his fellow volunteers, O’Sullivan says:

People are only out there because they want to be out there, there’s great camaraderie and we keep each other going in a search.

00156378 Gavin Chaney, right, and Declan Pigott who joined volunteers in the Tolka Valley Park during the search for Thomas Kennedy. Mark Stedman Mark Stedman

O’Sullivan was also involved in the search for Breda Delaney who went missing from her home in Blackrock in Dublin in July.

There were similarities to the earlier case in Finglas: the body of the 72-year-old was recovered off the coast of Scotland in October, almost three months after she was reported missing.

“We covered areas across the strand,” in south Dublin, O’Sullivan explains.

“Unfortunately, we had nothing to show but I can hold my hand over my heart and say those areas were well covered.

You could let your spirits drop, but even for the family to see you out doing this work, it’s a boost for them.


Finding bodies 

O’Sullivan has been involved in several searches.

In some cases, no body was found by the team of volunteers. On other occasions, however, searchers have discovered remains.

It’s always tough, he says.

“When you’re out searching you’re in a mode for searching and when there is a recovery the Civil Defence offer great services for people who are affected.

The best thing to do is to talk to somebody about it and not to let it build up but people do deal with it in their own way.

unnamed (8) Mick O'Sullivan

“I’m a bit numb to it at this stage after 29 years but it can be very hard.”

From the opposite side of the country, Tony Cusack, a founding member of Limerick Marine Search and Rescue, explains how he felt compelled to start the organisation after a young boy fell into the water.

“I was a sports diver for 12 years and did a little bit of river rescue work.

One day we got a call to find a young 15-year-old. He was playing football and he slipped into the water. It took 26 days to find him.
“After that we decided to form a unit that would get properly trained.
We were the first organisation to start a permanent river rescue in Limerick.

“We have received 47 rescue calls this year alone. Eight bodies were recovered, the others were rescued.”

One of those calls was the case where two men died after the support cage they were working in fell into the River Shannon in August.

download (1) RTE News RTE News

Three men were carrying out work on the bridge when their support cage fell into the water. Only one survived.

Regarding the tragedy, Cusack says it was particularly hard search for him and his fellow volunteers.

Recovering a body is always difficult to deal with.

“I’m a bit numb to it at this stage after 29 years – but it can be very hard.

Guys can tend to keep it to themselves but luckily we’re open with each other here.

“His body came to the surface just before Christmas”

Further north, in Galway, Mike Swan has been volunteering as lifeboat operations manager for the RNLI for almost 20 years.

He has worked on hundreds of search and rescue missions. Operations can range from “talking down” people attempting to take their own lives, to rescuing people from the water to “searches for people two or three weeks later”.

WP_20151103_12_31_54_Pro Mike Swan

Swan explains how when a call comes in, “We have a plan we put into action depending on weather conditions, we then locate where they might be with the information we have.

The follow up to that is search and recovery and basically you’re looking for a body – it’s a different kind of search. We would be working with the gardaí there.

“We continue the search until we can locate the person.

“Neighbours and the community often come out to help do a shoreline search.

“A lot of the time, if someone is missing for two or three weeks. It’s just not nice, we often would have uncles or someone in the family helping out in the search to identify the person.

They are in shock – nobody likes to do it.
What happens when the search for a missing person turns into a murder investigation? More from our ‘Missing’ series tomorrow morning on 
The national Missing Persons Helpline can be reached on 1890 442 552 or through this website.


Mystery in Fermoy: The couple who vanished into thin air one day in 1991 >

Ireland’s missing people: The numbers behind the heartbreak >

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