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Search wound down for crew of missing Coast Guard helicopter

An intense search for the remaining crew of a missing Irish Coast Guard helicopter off the west of Ireland has been wound down for the night after its rescued pilot died.

Hopes faded for the survival of anyone on the Sikorsky S92 which lost radio contact without any warning at around 12:45 am on Tuesday morning.

Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, 45, the first named victim of the suspected crash, was pulled from the Atlantic off the Co Mayo coast - around six miles (10km) west of Blacksod - deemed critically-ill, but later confirmed dead.

She was the mother of a three-year-old son.

The ground-breaking pilot from Dublin, well known for her starring role in a fly-on-the-wall television show about the life-saving service, had more than two decades experience in search and rescue missions.

Her sister Niamh Fitzpatrick said the family was devastated.

"My brave sister Capt Dara Fitzpatrick lost her life in #Rescue116 crash," she posted on Twitter.

"We are devastated. Please pray for recovery of three remaining crew."

In a statement to Today FM, her family added: "We are so proud of Dara's work and all she has done to save the lives of others over the years.

"We are completely heartbroken and we pray for the recovery of the other three crew."

The Dublin-based helicopter crew was providing cover for another Coast Guard helicopter involved in an early-morning evacuation of a crewman needing urgent medical attention on a UK-registered trawler, approximately 150 miles (240km) west of Eagle Island in Co Mayo.

It had flown directly to the scene from the Irish capital, travelled around 10 miles (16km) out to sea, then turned back towards land to refuel.

There was no indication of any danger moments before it vanished, with the crew's final transmission: "Shortly landing at Blacksod."

Visibility was described as not good at the time.

When the helicopter failed to arrive, a Mayday signal went out and Coast Guard helicopters from Sligo and Shannon along with the Air Corps maritime patrol aircraft Casa were tasked to the scene.

They were joined by lifeboats from Ballyglass and Achill, the Naval Service's LE Roisin ship and five local fishing vessels.

Officals from the Air Accident Investigation Unit are also at the scene carrying out a full investigation.

Jurgen Whyte, chief aeronautical officer with the unit, signalled the helicopter's black box could be crucial to learning what went wrong.

"These recorders are modern enough that we can actually - if we can recover the recorder and if it is functioning correctly - we can hopefully re-analyse the flight and actually get the aircraft to fly again digitally," he said.

"That will help investigators a lot to actually determine what was happening in the final moments of the flight."

Gerard O'Flynn, of the Irish Coast Guard, confirmed there was no indication the helicopter was in any trouble immediately before it vanished from the radar.

"This was a shock, the helicopter just simply disappeared," he said.

From early on, little hope was held out of any survivors.

Debris discovered on the surface of the water was brought ashore at a pier at Blacksod throughout the day, including what appeared to look like a door.

Eugene Clonan, acting director of the Irish Coast Guard, said the helicopter was one of best that can be used in search and rescue operations and had a "very good safety record".

President Michael D Higgins led tributes, saying it was a "dark day in the history of the Coast Guard".

"On behalf of the people of Ireland, may I pay tribute to Captain Dara Fitzpatrick who died today," he said.

"We are all grateful for the courage, resolution and exemplary commitment to the aims of the Coast Guard that Captain Fitzpatrick and her colleagues have consistently displayed.

"My thoughts are with her family at this difficult moment and also with the families of the missing crew."

Safety checks were carried out on the disappeared Sikorsky S92 helicopter and four others in January after its maker issued an alert.

No issues were found with any of the helicopters when precautionary inspections were ordered after an incident involving the same make and model on a North Sea platform late last year.

The aircraft are owned and operated by a private company called CHC, under contract with the Department of Transport for the Irish Coast Guard.

Mark Abbey, regional director for CHC, said: "We are devastated by this morning's tragic accident. Our thoughts are with Dara's family and friends, as well as those of the three crew who are still missing."

Ms Fitzpatrick was recognised with honours for her bravery and earned a place in the aviation history books.

Just three years ago, she was one of two female Coast Guard pilots who carried out the first all-woman mission for the service.

The pair flew a cardiac patient from west Co Cork to Cork University Hospital before transferring a critically-ill five-year-old child from the hospital to Temple Street Children's Hospital in Dublin.

She was known for her starring role in Rescue 117, a fly-on-the-wall documentary series on State broadcaster RTE, given behind the scenes access to the helicopter search and rescue service.

She had also spent a year long stint in Aberdeen flying onto oil rigs.

As well as her son, she is survived by three sisters, a brother and her parents.

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