25 May 2022

Tragedy ignites calls for overhaul of safety measures for pleasure crafts

Emotional calls from family to put safety recommendations into place

A number of hard-hitting recommendations were made to ensure better water safety procedures are followed by recreational craft users, at the end of a harrowing two-day inquest into a double-drowning tragedy at Letterkenny Courthouse on Thursday. 
Thomas Weir, 16, from Scotland and Gerry Doherty, 63, Castlecooley, Burt, tragically lost their lives when the recreational craft they were in sank off the coast of Malin Head on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. 
The seven-member jury called on Minister Eamon Ryan to take on board previous recommendations calling for the mandatory training of all persons taking vessels to sea; To educate all seafarers that a mobile phone is not an adequate radiocommunication device on its own (that VHF radios are deemed mandatory in all vessels taking to the sea); That education programmes should continuously highlight not only the possession, but the wearing of life jackets when one is on a vessel; and to review the Code of Practice to remove any inconsistencies in the document and have it presented in a more user-friendly readable format for the average reasonable person.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict of accidental death in the cases of both men. The jury also found that Gerry Doherty lost his life due to drowning while Thomas Weir lost his life as a result of asystolic arrest as a result of immersion in sea water. On Wednesday, Dessie Keenan recalled the last frantic final moments he spent with teenager Thomas Weir and his father-in-law Gerry Doherty who had left from Portronan pier earlier to go on a family fishing trip. Dessie said he and Gerry had fished together on many occasions at the location. He described his father-in-law as being a safety cautious man who had a wealth of experience on the sea. They had two mobile phones and an extra engine with them on their trip.
The three were plunged into the ocean after the engine got airlocked and water began to spill into the boat.Mr Keenan ensured Mr Weir was safely in his life jacket and then placed a call to the emergency services.

A recording of a call which was made to the emergency services was heard during the inquest which caused great distress to friends and family who were present. Mr Keenan could be heard saying: “I need the coastguard, yeah,off Malin Head, the boat is sinking….” 
The call from Dessie Keenan, 45, went through to Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) in Navan. However, when the call was transferred to Malin Head Coastguard to Sean Diver he told the inquest he couldn’t hear anything.
Mr Diver called the number six times between 10.16 to 10.41 but to no avail. Mr Diver could only get through to Mr Keenan’s voicemail.
He called ECAS in Navan to query the call while a call from the Ballyshannon-based ECAS centre was being placed to Malin Head coast guard by another operator. Mr Diver told the inquest he didn’t have enough detail at that point to launch a search and rescue operation due to the lack of information he had.  
Mr Derek Flanagan, who was then station manager of the Malin Head Coastguard Station, also gave an analysis of how they dealt with 999 calls at that time. Mr Flanagan echoed again that there was simply not enough information given in the 999 distress call which warranted them launching a full search and rescue mission early that morning.
On Thursday, evidence was heard from Mr Ciaran Moynihan of British Telecom who oversees the Emergency Call Answering Services. He said that calls are monitored by an operator at the service until the relevant connection is made and they then silently come off the conference type call. 

It was hours later when the sole survivor of the incident Dessie Keenan was plucked from the freezing ocean by experienced fisherman, Philip Doherty.
He said he saw something in the distance and when he went to investigate found Mr Keenan hanging onto a part of the boat.
Meanwhile, the body of Mr Doherty was later discovered by Veronica Gallagher shortly after 4pm on the rocks on a nearby beach. Her husband Vincent searched for a pulse but he couldn’t find any.
Gerry Doherty was brought to Letterkenny University Hospital where his body was formally identified.  
A man walking on a cliff ignited the search and rescue services when he spotted something in the ocean. A full-scale search got underway which involved Malin Head Coastguard coordinating a search in the area which included Rescue 118, local sea vessels, Greencastle Coastguard and Lough Swilly Coastguard. 
Mr Weir was detected in the ocean by Rescue 118 and airlifted from the sea and brought to Altnagelvin hospital at 4.05pm where he passed away.
The body of Mr Doherty was taken to Letterkenny University Hospital to be identified.
The Acting CEO for Water Safety Ireland, Roger Sweeney, said the current Code of Practice is easy to navigate and user friendly adding that ‘for the general recreational user, there are elements that could do with clarification.’
The Code of Practice is a 200-page booklet  and covers a range of recommendations that ought to be used whilst at sea by multiple users.   

The inquest also heard that apart from wearing lifejackets, no other safety recommendation in the code - such as VHF radios or carrying flares -  is mandatory or enforced.
Barrister Peter Nolan said that around 60,000 leisure crafts lie speckled along the Irish coast.
He said that despite the fact these vessels are motor propelled vehicles (MPV) there are no regulations or laws being exercised in relation to them. He also pointed out that the seafaring worthiness of these vessels are not being monitored in a manner similar to the NCT. He said that in South Africa boats carry a mark to say they are seaworthy but that doesn’t exist in Ireland.
Mr Nolan also pointed out that the Iceland code of practice is worthy with very little cases of drownings being recorded there in over a decade.
Mr Sweeney said that the enforcement of any such regulations may prove difficult.
Following the inquest, Dr Denis McCauley said: “I wish to comment on two State bodies which I feel have been completely unhelpful in the inquest process.
“The Marine Casualty Investigations Board in my view have shown a complete lack of empathy to the family and an arrogance about their report.
“The board feels that the report is plain reading and it should be accepted as evidence without any recognition that an inquest is an oral hearing and that we should expect any facts to be open to legitimate sensible clarification and questioning.”
Dr McCauley said that he felt the facts and findings associated with the report could only be used at an inquest if such facts are presented by an investigator from the marine investigating board verbally at the inquest.
The jury also gave the list of recommendations which they said they hoped would be taken on board by the Department of Transport.  They also expressed their sympathy with both the Doherty and Weir families. Outside the court, members of the Doherty family called on Minister Eamonn Ryan to examine all aspects of the code of practice for Safe Operations of Recreational Crafts.  
“We would like to sincerely thank the Coroner, Dr McCauley, for the professional and dedicated manner in which he has conducted this Inquest,” Donna Marie Keenan said.

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