Belfast Telegraph

Haunting final words of Rescue 116 remind us what tragedy really is

Coast Guard crew were no strangers to rescues in Northern Ireland and this helicopter crash has touched us all, writes Brendan O'Connor

Sometimes, something breaks through all the noise. There is a lot of noise these days. Too much media, too much information. Too many stories that require a reaction from us.

Emotional reactions to things have become a jaded currency now. Indeed, the media often feels it needs to tell us how to react these days, just in case we don't react. You will be shocked at this shocking story. This heartbreaking story will break your heart.

We are expected to get worked up about cute and sick and disabled children all over the world. We are supposed to be moved by brave, dying mums. Everyone is brave these days. Anyone dying is especially brave. And anyone who shares anything is brave, too. Lots of bravery around. All of it poses as empathy and truth. You wonder if it is. Or is it just more narcissism?

People who have endless reserves of empathy and admiration and humility for all these stories about people they don't know, do they really feel these emotions? Or are they just getting off on ersatz emotions? If your heart is breaking for some random person on Twitter every day is it really breaking? If you are humbled on a weekly basis by various brave people, do you really understand what humble means?

And that's before we get to outrage. Outrage is the crack cocaine of modern public emotions.

It offers the alleged pain of indignation, with the rush of feeling virtuous and better than other people, with the buzz of anger. It's victimhood, rage and being right, all wrapped up in a comforting blanket of belonging. You are there, secure in the comfort blanket of all other right-thinking people.

But it's getting tired. We need stronger and stronger doses all the time to get the same hit. Man dragged off plane works us up. Then we cool down too quickly. The man dragged off plane needs reconstructive surgery. Another hit. Convinces us this is real. With real consequences.

And then something comes along and makes us realise it's all bulls***. Something comes along to which we have a real, visceral reaction; a reaction that does not need to be signalled to us, a reaction we do not need to be told to have. And a reaction we don't feel the need to virtue signal about. Instead we just have the reaction. And there almost seems like nothing to say.

In this case it was two words: "We're gone."

It felt wrong to eavesdrop on the final seconds of Rescue 116. But we couldn't help it. Because, unlike so many of the other feelings we are told to feel about things, this was real. Our outrage was real, our humbling was real, our sympathy (let's leave the word heartbreak for the loved ones) was real.

It was real, too, because it was about one of the only real things in this world. Death. We're gone. In those two words are all of it. Goodbye. We are now going to die. That's the end of everything.

And it happened just like that. Perhaps similarly to how it will happen to all of us: just like that.

Many of us may be lucky, or unlucky enough, not to know it is happening. Some of us like to imagine it will happen in our sleep after a good day, a nice meal and good bottle of wine.

Others would prefer it happened poetically, surrounded by family, our peace made with everyone, the things we wanted to tell people all told to them, a pleasing sense that this is the end of our narrative, and the chance to look back over our story and finally see it in its fullness, and maybe to understand, if only briefly, what it might all have been about.

"We're gone." And then an agonising couple of seconds between realising it's over and then oblivion. And what goes through your head? The panic, dismay and frustration of realising this could have been avoided? The agony of knowing what everyone you are leaving behind will go through now? Your life flashing before your eyes? Anger at the people and the systems who put you in this position, a position you should never have been in?

Or maybe even an acceptance that the moment you always feared, the moment you knew could come when you took this job, has come.

"We're gone." It was all almost too much for the rest of us to take. Because most of us still go around imagining in some irrational way that we will not die, or that it's a long way off, and plenty to do first.

It felt wrong reading that transcript because it represented the most intimate moment in these four people's lives, the moment of truth if you will.

And we feel real outrage. Why were the Air Corps not available to provide the top cover on this occasion? Why didn't the helicopter know about the obstacles? Why did the programmed navigational route for Blacksod that they were relying on not make their approach seamless? Why didn't the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System tell them about the danger they were in? Why didn't their systems even have the lighthouse or the terrain programmed in?

You can get useless data on everything now. Data follows us everywhere. It knows what ads to show us, it knows our habits, our friends, what we buy, what we eat, what exercise we do, our heart rates. All this useless data, and here, where data had the ultimate use, that of saving lives, they didn't have the bloody data on the system, on two systems.

We are only now starting to understand how the crew of 116 risked their lives every time they went out. It is only now we are starting to understand how real it all was.

Let's face it, we had some notion that these things were safe, that the computers drove the helicopter for you, that it didn't matter if it was dark and you couldn't see. There were machines for that.

I have a car nearly 20 years old and it has parking sensors to stop you tipping off another car. We all have phones that can tell us where we are and what everything around us is. We have apps that can bring a taxi to our front door. We don't fly by the seat of our pants in any aspect of life any more. And that's just for our convenience. When lives are at stake, shouldn't the technology be so much better?

But clearly the machines are only as good as what we input into them. And in this case, the machines were not given enough information to keep those people safe. Even the fact that they had a discussion about not having landed in Blacksod for a while seems strange to us. Why would that matter, we wonder? The tech will do it for them.

But it does matter. The crew of Rescue 116 were doing something none of us do much any more. They were having to do something real, in a life-and-death situation, where they could not rely on the machines to do it for them. Experience counted, familiarity counted, human skills and judgment counted.

And even if all those worked, the machines and tech could still let them down.

Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby will not be forgotten in a hurry, but the world will move on. We will be up in arms about something new next week. But maybe the next time we get worked up, the next time we think we are outraged about an ad, or some ill-judged comment that some old fool of a football type makes, or whatever bubbles up that day, perhaps we should try and remember the reality of "We're gone".

The starkness of it, the truth of that moment, the real consequences of it. And we should remember what bravery really is, what outrage really is, what heartbreak really is, and what life and death really are.

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