Caitriona Lucas File photo
THE INQUEST INTO the death of Irish Coast Guard volunteer Caitriona Lucas, who died while assisting in a search and rescue operation off the west coast seven years ago, has heard how she and two other volunteers were thrown into the sea when their boat was hit by a huge wave.
The inquest heard that Ms Lucas, of the Doolin Coast Guard unit, was assisting members of Kilkee Coast Guard unit because they were short of volunteers.
The 41-year old librarian and mother-of-two from Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, was the first Coast Guard member to die on active duty.
Ms Lucas, along with Kilkee Coast Guard volunteers Jenny Carway and James Lucey, were searching the sea close to some cliffs for a missing man on 12 September 2016.
A massive wave unexpectedly hit their rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and the three crew members were thrown out of the boat into the sea.
In her deposition, which was read out by Inspector Gary Thompson, Ms Carway stated: “Caitríona shouted ‘breaking wave’. It broke straight in on top of us, turning us upside down. We were all wearing our helmets and we were all alive at this stage.”
“Another wave hit and we all got tossed about. The boat was upturned.”
Ms Carway said another wave swept them into a sea “cave”, and “smacked” her against the cave wall.
Another series of waves kept her “pinned against the cliff face”. She said she saw Ms Lucas and Mr Lucey were both “moving” at the back of the cave at this point.
Ms Carway stated they were hit by another “series of waves” and she saw “Caitriona lying face down in the water”.
She sad she was ‘fighting the waves” and clutching onto her radio in the water and issuing a mayday alert for help.
“The radio was gripped to my hands and I was screaming for help. I was told ‘keep swimming – don’t give up’, but I didn’t have any more (energy) in me.”
She was wearing a flotation device but she did not manually inflate her dry suit because “it impedes your movement in the water”.
She was eventually airlifted to safety by the Shannon-based Coast Guard rescue helicopter Rescue 115.
The court heard that all three volunteers lost their safety helmets after being hit by successive waves.
Ms Carway said her helmet was loose fitting so she used an inflatable bladder inside her helmet, tied the chin strap extremely tight, and kept her visor closed in order for her helmet to stay on her properly.
She said if she hadn’t been wearing her helmet when she was being “smashed” and “tumbled” against rocks in the cave she would not have survived.
Her helmet was “ripped off” her when she was hit by a wave and pinned against the cave wall.
Mr Kingston said Ms Lucas could be seen on video footage from rescuers’ cameras being struck by the Kilkee RIB and sea rocks, rendering her unconscious.
When asked if Ms Lucas could have survived if she had been wearing her helmet at the time she was hit by the boat, Ms Carway, fighting back tears, replied: “It could have been the difference between her being here today and not.”
When asked by Michael Kingston, a marine expert who is representing Ms Lucas’ family at the inquest, if the Coast Guard service had offered her any “supports” since the fatal incident, Ms Carway replied “No”.
She told the inquest jury of four men and three women at Kilmallock courthouse, Co Limerick, that the Kilkee unit was “always” short of volunteer crews, and it routinely required assistance from volunteers from outside units.
The inquest heard the Kilkee boat logs had been requested by the Lucas family to be provided to the inquest but they were not available.
It was also heard that Ms Lucas’s dry suit had filled up with water.
The crew were not aware they were entering a “surf zone” which was considered a no-go zone for inflatable RIBs.
Safety gear belonging to the three volunteers was put into evidence bags by gardaí at the time and given to a representative of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB). These items had also been requested by the Lucas family but they had not yet been made available, Mr Kingston said.
‘They just kept coming’
James Lucey told the hearing: “I saw a wall of water crashing towards us. It hit us and dragged us under. I remember being underwater, it was like being in a washing machine.”
“Another wave crashed into us. They just kept coming.”
Mr Lucey said that every time that he tried to climb onto rocks for safety, another wave “washed me off”.
He was swept into the cave where the “tide was coming in” around them and when he surfaced after being hit by another wave, his helmet was gone.
He said he initially saw Ms Lucas “on her back” on the water, but she ended up being “face down” in the water before being winched from the sea by the Rescue 115 helicopter to University Hospital Limerick where she was pronounced dead.
He said he felt it was too dangerous to stay with the boat, after it had righted itself, given the waves crashing about them.
He said they were all wearing flotations devices but that he did not inflate his dry suit “as I deemed it would restrict my movements in the water”.
When asked by Mr Kingston if he expected his helmet would have stayed on, Mr Lucey replied: “Yes.”
Mr Lucey said his dry suit was not full of water but that if it had been he would not have been able to get himself onto a ledge in the cave prior to being rescued by the Coast Guard helicopter.
Retired Garda Sergeant John Moloney of Kilrush Garda Station, who was on duty on the day, fought back tears in court, recalling hearing the mayday alert and the words “capsized” over the rescuers’ radios.
He said he asked a member of the Kilkee unit to join people who were operating a private boat and go search for Ms Lucas and her two colleagues.
He said “large rolling waves were smashing against the cliffs” and this leisure boat could not reach the capsized crew.
Mr Moloney said he witnessed Ms Lucas “lying face down and being tossed around at the mercy of the breaking waves”.
“She seemed unconscious. The RIB was upright and unoccupied near the cliffs.”
It was accepted by the coroner that a report compiled by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) into the fatal incident included incorrect details of the location of where the Kilkee RIB capsized.
Separately, Mr Kingston said he was being “gagged” by coroner John McNamara, who said he would not allow him raise a 2014 incident in Dingle, Co Kerry involving a capsized vessel, as Mr McNamara had previously ruled this was not relevant.
The inquest continues tomorrow.News Related