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Questions over sea rescue in which Donegal winchman injured

rescue heli with rnli lb

BOTH the Irish Coast Guard and the world’s largest helicopter company have refused to comment on the specifics of a serious incident in which a winchman from Donegal was injured during a daring rescue from a fishing trawler.

A report on the incident on board the 13-metre trawler, FV Liberty, off Cork in February 2013 has been published by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB). The MCIB report found that a fisherman died on the vessel after he sustained extensive head injuries when he was struck by a pair of split links that fell from a height. He is believed to have died before his body was removed by air from the trawler.

CHC Helicopter, the world’s largest such company, provides air/sea rescue services on behalf of the Coast Guard. In July 2010, it was awarded a 10-year €500 million contract to provide search and rescue services on behalf of the Coast Guard, a deal which was signed by former transport minister Noel Dempsey.

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The report said the winchman was dropped on to the trawler by the Shannon-based R115 helicopter. However, “due to fuel constraints” it was unable to complete winching and had to leave to re-fuel. The Waterford-based R117 helicopter, which was on stand-by, was called in to complete the lift. During the rescue operation, the Donegal winchman along with the dead man on a stretcher, ended up in the sea, after the cable lifting them snapped.

“During the winching lift operation, the winchman and stretcher were inadvertently pulled off the deck and a large swing developed to such a degree that the cable made contact with some airframe components of the helicopter. The cable failed in overload and both the winchman and stretcher entered the water.”

The helicopter emergency winching system was immediately deployed and the winchman managed to re-secure himself and the stretcher to the winch and were recovered. However, the winchman later reported that his personal locator beacon (SARBE) did not activate when he entered the water.

The MCIB report says the decision to perform a stretcher lift of a deceased person in such a hostile environment “may have” exposed the winchman to unnecessary risk.

The Donegal News submitted a detailed query to both CHC and the Department of Transport, seeking a copy of their investigation report. We also asked if there has  been a ‘fit-for-purpose’ review of all equipment, including SABRE beacons, and operations involving CHC.

A spokesman for CHC Helicopter said: “We are aware of the MCIB report and its findings. We regularly review our procedures to make sure search and rescue teams operate under the safest circumstances in what is an often challenging environment.”

Initially, the department released an identical response on behalf of the Coast Guard , however they later answered the rest of our questions. “The department is aware of the MCIB report and its findings. The Coast Guard regularly reviews its services and procedures to make sure search and rescue crews operate safely. The aviation aspects of this particular incident were the subject of a separate investigation by the helicopter operator, resulting in Corrective Preventative Actions (CPA), which was verified and tracked by a Coast Guard appointed aviation expert. The SARBE worked normally when tested by CHC. Regular audits are carried out by the Coast Guard.”

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The union representing CHC crew members, IMPACT, did not return our calls or emails.

For full report, see today’s print edition of the Donegal News, or subscribe to our digital edition.

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Donegal News is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. St. Anne's Court, Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland