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Caitríona and Bernard Lucas in 2014.

Heart-breaking evidence on day one of Caitríona Lucas inquest

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Harrowing evidence of the final moments of North Clare woman and Irish Coast Guard volunteer, Caitríona Lucas, who died while assisting in a search and rescue operation off the west coast, seven years ago, was given by her crew mates at the start of her inquest today.
It was accepted that Ms Lucas, of the Doolin unit of the Irish Coast Guard, was assisting members of Kilkee Coast Guard unit because they were short of volunteers. She was the first Coast Guard member to die on active duty.
The 41-year old librarian and mother-of-two might have had survived had she still been wearing her safety helmet that had earlier been ripped off her by a wave, when she was struck by the Kilkee RIB and smashed against rocks off Kilkee Bay, it was heard.
Ms Lucas, along with Kilkee coast guard volunteers Jenny Carway and James Lucey were searching the sea beneath the cliffs at an area near the “pollock holes”, for a missing man, on September 12, 2016.
Suddenly, a massive wave hit their 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 “Caitríona lying face down in the water”.
She said 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 said her safety helmet was “ripped off” by a wave and she was “washed down to the side of the cliff face”.
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 helicopter Rescue 115.
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, in County Limerick, that the Kilkee unit was “always” short of volunteer crews, and it routinely required assistance from volunteers from outside units.
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 an so she used an inflatable bladder inside her helmet, tied the chin strap extremely tight, and keep her visor closed, 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”.
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’ dry suit had filled up with water.
The crew were not made 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 and given to a representative of the Maine 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.
One maritime VHF radio was not working properly and a seat on the Kilkee RB was not in commission.
Ms Carway and Mr Lucey told the inquest that Ms Lucas had been on the Kilkee RIB that day because there were not enough regular Kilkee coast guard members available on the day.
It was accepted by Limerick Coroner, John McNamara, 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.
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 he tried to “climb” onto rocks, 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 flotation 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, Kilrush Garda Station, who was on duty on the day, fought back tears in court, recalling hearing the “mayday” alert and the words “capsized” screech 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.
Becoming emotional, 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 [boat] was upright and unoccupied near the cliffs.”
The inquest continues tomorrow.
For full coverage see this Thursday’s Clare Champion.

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