Caitriona Lucas died after Coast Guard crew tossed into sea by ‘wall of water’, inquest hears

A Coast Guard volunteer who survived the tragedy that claimed the life of Caitriona Lucas said their boat was struck by a freak wall of water that capsized their boat and tossed the three crew into a sea that was like “a washing machine”.

A second Coast Guard volunteer who survived the same tragedy fought back tears as she said that, had fellow volunteer Ms Lucas’s helmet not been ripped off by a freak wave, she might likely have survived their capsizing and being driven into a semi-flooded sea cave.

There were emotional scenes as Limerick Coroner John McNamara opened the inquest into the death of Ms Lucas at Kilmallock Courthouse.

Ms Lucas (41), who worked as a librarian, died during a Coast Guard search mission near Kilkee in west Clare on September 12, 2016.

A native of Ballyvaughan in north Clare, the mother of two suffered fatal injuries during the mission and became the first Coast Guard volunteer to die while on active duty.

Ms Lucas was an advanced coxswain with the Doolin unit of the Coast Guard and had been with the service for a decade.

That day the Doolin team was assisting the Kilkee unit in the search for a young man who had gone missing in the area.

Mr McNamara and a jury of four men and three women were told that the Kilkee unit were short of volunteers for sea operations that day and had asked assistance from the Doolin unit.

Ms Lucas – who had completed the Advanced Search and Rescue course – volunteered to help and went to sea with two other volunteers in a rigid inflatable boat (Rib) at 10.30am that day.

Around 1pm, the Rib carrying Coast Guard personnel Ms Lucas, James Lucey and Jenny Carway approached Lookout Bay and Intrinsic Bay near Kilkee.

The crew had not been made aware of the fact that Intrinsic Bay could witness “peculiar” waves – and that vessels reversed into the inlet for safety reasons.

They were also unaware of any specific dangers posed by the waters involved, with sea conditions much better than the previous day.

“We were moving along slowly,” Mr Lucey explained.

“Then I saw a wall of water crashing towards us. It hit us on the right hand side. It dragged us with it towards the cliff.”

The Rib capsized and cast all three volunteers – Mr Lucey, Ms Lucas and Jenny Carway – into the sea.

“I was underwater. I couldn’t see anything. It was just like being in a washing machine,” he said.

Mr Lucey said he managed to clamber onto a rock but was immediately swept off it by the waves.

When he managed to get a perch on a ledge in a sea cave, he saw his two colleagues in the sea.

“I could see Jenny and Caitriona. Jenny was further away.”

He said Ms Lucas was floating on her back with her face upwards and he shouted at her to try to stand.

Later, when he looked again, he saw Ms Lucas floating face down in the water.

Ms Carway, who was experienced in water sports, said the group had little or no warning when the freak wave struck.

“Caitriona shouted – ‘breaking wave’. I barely got to move my head around when I saw the water,” she said.

Ms Carway said the freak wave struck them, capsized their vessel and tossed all three into the sea.

Fighting back tears, she said her helmet stayed on but she noted that the safety helmets of both Mr Lucey and Ms Lucas had been ripped off by the wave.

“It [the helmet] could have been the difference between her being here today and not,” she said.

Ms Carway said her helmet was loose fitting – so she used an inflatable bladder to make it tight on her head and also firmly adjusted the chin strap.

Marine expert, Michael Kingston, who is working with the Lucas family, put it to Ms Carway that drone rescue footage shows what happened to Ms Lucas without her helmet.

“Ms Lucas can be seen [on the drone footage] being struck by the boat and rocks, rendering her unconscious,” he said.

Ms Carway said she was driven into a sea cave at the foot of the cliff by the freak wave – and feared she would not survive.

Her helmet was repeatedly struck off rocks inside the cave as she was tossed around by the powerful surf.

“If I didn’t have it [the helmet] I wouldn’t be here. I was being tumbled [by the waves] and the helmet was taking it [the blows from rocks].”

A private Rib was immediately launched at the direction of Gardaí when they became aware of the incident, with a Coast Guard officer on board.

This managed to rescue Ms Carway, who was able to swim out to the vessel.

She said that, having been battered by waves and swells with her helmet also eventually being physically ripped off by the waves, she feared for her life.

Seconds after the boat capsized, she was able to make a brief mayday call on her marine VHF radio.

“I got a call back when I had nearly given up. It said: ‘Keep swimming – don’t give up.’ I was being smacked up against the rocks…one wave had pinned me against the cliff,” she said.

Both Mr Lucey and Ms Lucas were rescued by the Shannon-based Coast Guard helicopter thanks to the heroic actions of a winchman.

Ms Lucas was in a critical condition and she was airlifted to University Hospital Limerick (UHL) where she was later pronounced dead.

Mr Kingston raised several issues with the inquest, including that Kilkee boat logs were never provided to them; that the crew were not made aware of the unique wave threat posed by Intrinsic Bay; that Ms Lucas’ dry suit was filled with water; and that the safety helmets of both Mr Lucey and Ms Lucas had ripped off during the incident.

Similarly, the inquest heard that one marine VHF radio was not working properly and that a seat on the Rib was not in commission.

Mr Kingston told the inquest he was “being gagged” when he was not allowed to raise a 2014 incident in Dingle involving a vessel capsizing, with coroner McNamara saying he had ruled that it was not relevant to the inquiry in hand.

Mr Lucey also confirmed, when questioned by Mr Kingston, that the location specified for the tragedy in the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) report was incorrect – with the actual site of the capsizing located over one kilometre further up the coast.

There were emotional scenes when a Garda at the scene, now retired Sergeant John Moloney, recalled seeing Ms Lucas prone in the water.

Sgt Moloney said he was concerned for the safety of people on land earlier that day as large numbers walked along cliff tops as part of a search for a missing local man.

The garda was with a Coast Guard officer when he heard a radio alert that a vessel had just capsized and people were in the water needing help.

Sgt Moloney’s voice broke as he recalled what he saw from the cliffs near Diamond Rocks.

“I could see a Coast Guard member in the water swimming towards a Rib,” he said.

“I could see a second Coast Guard member lying face down in the water and that person, Caitriona Lucas, was being tossed around at the mercy of the incoming, breaking waves.

“This Coast Guard member appeared to be unconscious.”

The Rib that the three Coast Guard officials had been operating had been shoved by the waves up against the base of the cliff.

The inquest is expected to last for four days.

Ms Lucas is survived by her husband Bernard and their two children, Ben and Emma.

The children were aged 20 and 18 years at the time of her death in 2016.

In the wake of the tragedy, the State launched two separate investigations – one by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) and the other by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

The Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) report found that the Coast Guard did not have an effective safety management system.

The Coast Guard contested the MCIB’s draft findings in a detailed submission which was included in the board’s final report.

In 2020, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided that no criminal charges should be brought in relation to the tragedy after a report was forwarded to it by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

Mr Lucas hailed Caitriona as “caring, gentle, kind, wanted to help others, always had a warm smile and was 100pc dedicated to everything she did”.

“She was an animal lover. She filled the farm with cats, dogs and goats. She was extremely hardworking and very modest. She was very brave and courageous and she loved the Coast Guard,” he added.

“She always had the best outlook and advice on life. The love she had for life, her family, travel and helping others was immense. No problem or challenge was too big for her to overcome and she always knew what to say to other people to comfort them.”

At her funeral, Ms Lucas was remembered as an inspirational hero.

Thousands of relatives, friends and staff from the emergency services paid respects to Ms Lucas at her funeral at St Brigid’s Church, Liscannor, Co Clare.

As scores of Irish Coast Guard staff, in their distinctive black uniforms and white peaked caps, flanked the entrance to the church, Ms Lucas’s husband Bernard and son Ben fought back tears to describe their loss.

Mr Lucas told mourners they should learn from his wife’s motto on life: “Don’t put things off, do them now. Time is short. Life is very precious.”

A moving tribute was also paid by Ben.

“My mother was an exceptional person in every way,” he said.

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