I’m standing at the back door of the cottage, watching as a Coast Guard helicopter flies low and slow, tracing the line of Tullaghan Bay. Every now and then it pauses, hovering as the crew peer down at some shape or fragment below them. Then it moves off, the red and white of its fuselage gleaming in the afternoon sun.
I was in England when the first reports of the crash of Rescue 116 came in. A Sikorsky S-92A of the Irish Coast Guard had vanished in the early hours of 14 March with four crew members aboard, said the news announcer, on a routine mission in north Mayo. I was sorry – of course I was sorry – but in the way that these things have, the accident gained in significance because I knew the area. From high ground behind our cottage, you can make out the distant speck of Blackrock Island, far out in the Atlantic. This was where Rescue 116 was lost.
One of the crew members, Dara Fitzpatrick, was found in the water within hours. She died shortly afterwards. The following day, wreckage was discovered on the ocean bed fifty metres off Blackrock. Bad weather and a strong swell slowed down the recovery operations, but on 26 March, twelve days after R116 went down, the body of a second crew member, Mark Duffy, was brought up from the wreckage by divers.
Finally, on 2 April, the wreck of R116 was raised from the sea. But there was no sign of the remaining crewmen, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith.
By now I was in Erris, staying at the cottage for a month to write. Everyone was talking about R116. A death in this part of the world belongs to everyone. People flocked to the area, not to stare, but to volunteer to help, to pay their respects, to be part of it. The papers were filled with theories and step-by-step accounts of the recovery operation. The audio transcript from the voice recorder was published, with its terrible last words: ‘Come right now, come right. Come right!’ And then,‘We’re gone’.
The sister of Ciarán Smith came on TV to beg the searchers not to give up: ‘We need those boys home, now. They have to come home, now.’ And it seemed like the whole of Ireland answered her. A few days later, we stood high on top of one of Achill’s peaks, looking out to sea at the biggest combined search operation ever mounted by the state. The Coast Guard, the Navy, the Air Corps and half a dozen more agencies were joined by more than eighty fishing vessels and small craft in a massive hunt from Mayo all the way up to Donegal.
Yet there was no trace of the men. It became a habit as I walked along the beach to go and peer at some piece of jetsam washed up on the shore, torn between the wish that the lost be found, and the hope that it wouldn’t be me that found them.
Today, more than 160 divers from all over the country have gathered at Blacksod to search once more. And the Coast Guard is out again, checking the shores. So I stand on the doorstep and watch the helicopter as it works its way slowly round the bay, pausing, hovering, moving on.
Then I notice my cheeks are wet with tears, and I go inside and close the door. ‘We’re gone.’