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Pat O'Donnell, a Hero

By: 
Lorna Siggins, The Irish Times,An Irishwoman's Diary, Sat 28th Oct 2006

Here's a story which illustrates the impact that a controversial project is having on a close-knit community. Nine years ago this week, emergency services received a report that four people had not returned from a boat trip to Belderrig pier in north Mayo.

Retired German businessman Will Ernest von Below had taken Tony Murphy, his wife Carmel, and their 11-year old daughter, Emma, for a trip in his five-metre currach. They had explored the wonderful sea caves at the foot of cliffs at Horse island, when they ran into trouble. They managed to take refuge in one of the larger caves, and were then trapped when their currach capsised.

It was 5.30pm, with only an hour of light left, when the Ballyglass RNLI lifeboat, the Irish Coast Guard unit in Killala and local fishing vessels began to search the coastline - not knowing where the party were. Pat O'Donnell, fisherman and skipper of the Blath Bawn, had heard the alert on VHF radio emergency channel 16 when he was in his house.

O'Donnell couldn't locate his crew, but his 12-year-old son Jonathan was game to come. O'Donnell's brothers, Tony and Martin, also steamed out to search. At about 7pm, shouts and whistles were heard coming from a tideline-level cave on Horse Island. Lights trained on a cave mouth could pick out the reflective strips of lifejackets. "As long as the strips were moving we knew they were alive," Pat O'Donnell says.

Co-ordinator of the rescue was Supt Tony McNamara, second coxswain of the Ballyglass lifeboat - and now chief superintendant and head of the Mayo Garda division. He spent the night working on a hand-held VHF, and had to use a phone in a private house some three-quarters of a mile from the pier to call for extra resources - including the Garda Water Unit in Dublin. Estimated times of arrival were complicated by the fact that the clocks were about to change.

Yet that changing time was of the essence. The tide would eventually fill the cave, and so the Ballina-based Grainne Uaile diving club agreed to help. The Irish Coast Guard Killala unit rescue boat took the club divers to the cave mouth and stood by them as two of them, Josie Barrett and Michael Heffernan, swam in with a light line. However, in three-metre waves the divers became separated, and Barrett was eventually picked up in a state of complete exhaustion.

It was assumed that Heffernan had reached the group, and the Garda divers were fully kitted out when they were dropped by the Shannon-based Sikorsky helicopter in a field close to the pier. Sean McHale and Martin Kavanagh of the Irish Coast Guard battled the enormous swell at the cave mouth, making repeated efforts to carry the Garda divers in.

The boat was eventually tossed up and thrown onto boulders in the cave. The rescuers found the Murphy family huddled together in a crevice, just a metre above sea level. And they discovered two bodies - those of Mr von Below and Michael Heffernan. The club diver had been hurled against rocks as he tried so valiantly to reach the family.

At this stage, the Irish Coast Guard inflatables's engine had been damaged beyond repair, and there appeared to be only one option. The survivors would be loaded on board, and Garda Ciaran Doyle would swim 1,000 metres out with a 250-metre line.

O'Donnell's Blath Bawn was on standby, as it had been for hours, a metre from rocks at the cave mouth. For Garda Doyle, it was an act of incredible faith.

Pat O'Donnell spotted the Garda diver emerging. He recovered him, and the essential line, from the water. Working with his brother, Martin, in a sister craft, Sinéad, O'Donnell hauled the Irish Coast Guard inflatable out. The Murphys, the Irish Coast Guard crew and Doyle's fellow divers were brought to safety, and then transferred to the Ballyglass lifeboat which had been standing some way off.

O'Donnell returned to recover the bodies of Will Ernest von Below and Michael Heffernan. At the State's first marine rescue awards some 18 months later, Heffernan was awarded a gold medal posthumously. He had become the first civilian volunteer to die in a marine rescue since the establishment of IMES, now the Irish Coast Guard. A bronze statue in his memory was subsequently unveiled by his wife, Annamarie, and their two children, Leigh Anne and Michelle, at Lacken pier.

Silver medals were given to Garda Ciaran Doyle, Sean McHale of the Irish Coast Guard and Josie Barrett of the Grainne Uaile diving club. Bronze medals were given to Garda Dave Mulhall and Garda Sean O'Connell, and to Martin Kavanagh, McHale's assistant on the Irish Coast Guard inflatable. Pat O'Donnell and his brothers received letters of thanks. O'Donnell remembers that his son, Jonathan, "worked like a man that night".

Such experiences can test and forge the strongest bonds between those involved off coast and onshore, and the fishermen and divers were to meet again in another search a year later and at subsequent events.

Just over a fortnight ago, Pat O'Donnell was one of four fishermen arrested and subsequently released at the Corrib gas terminal protests. Among the gardaí facing him in Belmullet Garda Station were two of the team he had worked with off Horse Island on that fateful night.