Belfast Telegraph

Hopes fading for missing angler

Hopes are fading that a missing father-of-three will be found alive after a fishing trip in the Irish Republic turned to tragedy, claiming the life of his young friend and leaving another fighting for survival.

Heartbroken family and friends gathered on the wind-battered shore of Lough Ree in Co Westmeath throughout the day as rescue teams battled wet and blustery conditions to locate one of the anglers who remains lost.

He is understood to be a married father-of-three from Portadown, Co Armagh, whose wife is expecting their fourth child.

A second man from Armagh - named locally as David Warnock, who was 27 - died after being pulled ashore at Hodson Bay harbour on the lake yesterday.

A third man, aged 60, from Lurgan, remains in a critical condition in hospital after being pulled semi-conscious from the winter-cold waters.

They were part of a six-man expedition from the Portadown Pikers angling club who left Hodson Bay on two 15ft (4.6m) Dell Quay Dory flat-bottomed vessels around 3pm yesterday for a pike-fishing and camping trip.

Eye-witness Tommy Byrne, who watched the tragedy unfold as he was working on his camper van at the lough harbour, said a freak squall roared over the water shortly after the anglers set off towards Carna Bay.

"It was pretty calm when they got going, but maybe about 45 minutes after they went my dogs got a bit spooked because there was a big squall out in the lake," he said.

"The dogs jumped into the van, and there were hailstones and a big wind came round.

"Shortly after that one of the party came around and asked me if I saw the others. Bags were floating on the water and the alarm was raised at that stage."

It is believed conditions were poor but dramatically and rapidly worsened as one of the boats neared Yew Point, further along the lakeshore.

Mr Byrne said he remembered the group setting off like any bunch of anglers looking forward to a few days fishing.

Shortly afterwards, he found himself in the middle of the rescue operation, bringing the 60-year-old rescued angler into his campervan and wrapping him in a blanket until paramedics arrived.

"It just appeared to me that the squall got them, hit their boat and sank them. It was just a random freak accident," he said.

"The conditions were nasty enough, but it wasn't particularly wild. I honestly think it was that squall that caught them off guard - it could have happened to anybody. It was just one of those things that came out of nowhere."

In Co Armagh relatives and friends were told about the tragedy late last night.

Colin McCusker, an Ulster Unionist councillor related to Mr Warnock, said: "We have a massive family circle and this is a young man of less than 30 with his life ahead of him.

"As a family we are devastated. We are just in limbo because they are three hours from home and we are just trying to prepare for what we need to do over the next few days. We're just in shock at the minute."

As the family of Mr Warnock were coming to terms with his death this morning, a massive search and rescue operation was re-launched at first light, covering an area of land and lake around three miles by one mile.

The Sligo-based Irish Coast Guard helicopter helped co-ordinate teams from the RNLI, Fisheries Board, Garda Water Unit as well as local diving clubs and anglers.

But as the light faded, Damien Delaney, lifeboat operations manager at Lough Ree lifeboat station, said a search of shoreline was almost exhausted without finding the missing man.

"Certainly within the range of the debris, the most likely places he could have been if still afloat, we've walked most of the shoreline where he may have got ashore," he said.

"The search may well have to become, rather than a search and rescue, a recovery operation."

Fishing gear, camping equipment and supplies from the heavily-laden boats were found strewn along the shores of Inchbofin, a small island in the lough.

The men, believed to be experienced anglers who had fished the lough before, were planning to travel about five miles (8km) across the water to set up a camping base when one of the boats got into trouble around Yew Point.

The other boat turned back to shore a short distance into the journey.

They had spoken to locals about the weather before they set out.

Mr Byrne, who has lived on the lough, said: "I remember looking out at the lake and seeing these big white horses of waves.

"The waves on the lake are not like sea waves where you get periods in between, they can be very close together, and they can be violent. They were in a small boat and if one of those waves hit the boat..."

Mr Warnock was unconscious when taken from the water and was transferred to University Hospital Galway last night in a critical condition but died later in intensive care.

Martin McEnroe, of the Angling Council of Ireland, was at the lough shore to comfort loved ones of those lost in the tragedy.

"They are very, very upset, as you can imagine" Mr McEnroe said.

"It's the worst tragedy that we can remember in angling circles on Lough Ree.

"Certainly we've never experienced anything like this before. It's a huge, huge blow to us.

"The angling community in Ireland is a small community, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of the anglers that have been lost."

David Simpson, DUP Upper Bann MP, knows some of the Portadown families caught up in the tragedy.

He said: "These men set out to do something they loved. They wanted a short break where they could relax and enjoy their sport. No one anticipated that their journey to Lough Ree would result in this tragic and heartbreaking news.

"In such a situation no words can sum up feelings of the families. I can only assure them of my prayers and the support of the community in Portadown."


From Belfast Telegraph