Three men died and another was seriously injured after a fishing trip ended in tragedy yesterday evening when a boat caught fire.
The blaze broke out on the 25ft-long motor cruiser called 'Castaway' shortly after 5pm and the vessel later sank off the coast of Castletownbere in west Cork.
There were unconfirmed reports that its fuel tanks may have exploded during the incident in Bantry Bay.
One of the dead is a local Irishman, one was a German who had been living here for a number of years, and the other man was also believed to be from continental Europe. They were all aged in their 60s.
The Glengarriff native was named locally last night as Richard Harmon, a retired farmer and auctioneer, well known in the community through his work and activism with Fine Gael.
He was due to celebrate his 70th birthday next month. His family and friends gathered in a pub in the tourist village as locals offered their sympathies.
The German man was also named locally. Mike Schmidt had retired after moving to Glengarriff about 20 years ago. He was an experienced seaman after spending years in the merchant navy.
The third man who died was believed to have been living between Glengarriff and the Bantry area.
The Aqua Star cruiser was off Adrigole Harbour near the Roancarraig Lighthouse, some 5km from the entrance to Berehaven, when the tragedy began to unfold.
The Irish Coast Guard Sikorsky helicopter -- which was in west Cork attending to a separate rescue at Hungry Hill -- immediately travelled to the scene alongside an RNLI lifeboat and fishing craft.
It is understood the alarm was raised from a 999 call on shore. The helicopter was at the scene within minutes, and four men were recovered from the sea.
However, three were pronounced dead after their bodies were taken ashore and the other was airlifted to Cork University Hospital (CUH).
It was unclear last night whether the three died from the effects of the fire, drowning or hypothermia.
However, several of the victims are understood to have sustained burns.
The survivor -- understood to be a 46-year-old American national who has been based outside Glengarriff over recent years -- was in a stable condition last night. He was being treated for mild hypothermia, minor injuries and shock.
Sea conditions were described as quite good, though fog reduced visibility around the scene of the tragedy.
Castletownbere RNLI deputy coxswain Paul Stevens said rescue officials were deeply shocked by the scale of the loss of life in the tragedy.
"At 5.40pm, Castletownbere lifeboat was tasked to go to a boat that was on fire south of Roancarraig Lighthouse," he said.
"We were there on scene within 20 to 25 minutes. The Coast Guard helicopter, which had been on another mission nearby, had winched four casualties from the water," he added.
"Very tragically, three of the casualties didn't survive and the one surviving casualty has been taken to CUH. When we were there, there was a motor cruiser on fire.
"About 20 to 30 minutes later, the other vessel actually sank," he added.
Mr Stevens said the fire on the motor cruiser was "very visible" from the lifeboat. He declined to comment on the possible cause of the blaze.
Coast Guard officials and gardai hope to be able to interview the survivor today about the precise circumstances of the tragedy.
A major probe will be launched by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board. The State Pathologist's office was also notified and post-mortem examinations will be carried out over the next 72 hours.
Initial reports are that the vessel caught fire and, within seconds, the blaze raged out of control. It is feared that the fire may then have ruptured the vessel's fuel tanks.
Locals expressed shock last night at the scale of the tragedy.
Councillor Noel Harrington said the death of the three men was a tragic end to the tourist season in Castletownbere.
"If something goes awry on land that is one thing, but when it happens at sea it is a different ball game.
"Luckily the helicopter was down there already because they were assisting in an emergency at Hungry Hill. It is an awful tragedy to happen on a cruiser like that . . . it is a terrible, terrible thing to happen," he added.
Castletownbere priest Fr Gearoid Walsh said the thoughts and prayers of the local community were with the dead and their families.