Belfast Telegraph

Westmeath boat accident: Tense vigil on shore as volunteers flock to join the difficult search

By David Whelan

Heavy rainfall and choppy waters at the isolated harbour of Hodson Bay on Lough Ree gave only a partial sense of the perilous conditions that lay just beyond the safety of the pier.

Teams of rescue workers scrambled in and out of various search vessels, the sense of grief too strong for anyone to address. Instead of easing up in the stormy weather, they worked harder.

Watching the intensive search operation for Portadown man Daryl Burke, members of his family comforted each other as news filtered through of the death of his angling friend David Warnock and the critical condition in hospital of the third casualty, John Trimble.

Appreciative nods to passing volunteers was all they could muster as they huddled together, hoping for any scrap of good news.

Away from the elements that brought such tragedy to the three experienced fishermen, Inspector Nicholas Farrell of Athlone Garda station manned the command post at a temporary search and rescue station set up in a local hotel.

From here, numerous underwater units, RNLI teams, civil defence personnel and helicopter crew co-ordinated their planned searches. It was also a point of contact for the many volunteers who had turned up to lend any help they could.

Inspector Farrell said that he had been inundated with offers of support from the local community and from both north and south of the border.

Shortly after the search resumed yesterday morning, a 20-strong group of members from the men's own Portadown Pikers angling club had embarked on a search of a forest area just out of sight of the harbour.

Volunteer Sarah McCabe said they were determined not to give up hope in their search for Mr Burke.

"News broke late last night and we wanted to come then, but the search had to be wrapped up by around 8pm because of the weather and light conditions," she said.

"We knew the search would be resuming at first light so we came to do whatever we could and help in any way possible.

"There was no hesitation, we all know how unforgiving the water can be, and that binds us together as a special group.

"The weather conditions are difficult now and apparently they were multiplied on Thursday. Unfortunately, that makes the search effort all the more difficult."

Out on Lough Ree, the level of help offered was plain to see. A helicopter scoped the water and nearby islands, while lifeboats waited on divers returning to the surface. There were even people out on jet skis and fishing boats, doing what they could.

Close to the pier the tense atmosphere was too much for one female relative, who burst into tears when trucks arrived to tow away what is believed to have been the two white vans that carried the anglers to where they set off on their trip.

Parish priest of St Peter and Paul's, Athlone, Fr John Cullen, visited the search scene to show the support of the local parish.

"We held prayers and Mass this morning and the amount of people showing concern was huge," he said.

"The volunteer effort here is truly amazing – there are people from all over Ireland here, not just from our own town.

"We are standing here in the heart of Ireland and this tragedy has struck a deep chord of emotion throughout; the people here are giving an expression to that.

"This kind of tragedy really brings it home to us the realisation of the slender thread our lives are on.

"Last summer we had a great year and the place was crowded with people enjoying the water, and now the water has claimed a life.

"Our prayers go out that the missing man can be found safe and well and to the families of those who have lost and been impacted."

Belfast Telegraph


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