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Navy RIB closes in on divers as they approach the search site. Photo: Jim Campbell
KILMORE, Ireland -- Tensions between the Navy, the Coast Guard and club divers desperate to recover the remains of their missing colleague, Billy O’ Connor reached fever point at Kilmore on Sunday night as accusations of engaging in politics were levelled at the state agencies involved in the search.
Earlier in the day, divers from the Hook Head and Kilkenny sub aqua clubs were threatened with prosecution when they attempted to dive the wreckage of the Rising Sun.
Search Co-ordinator with Kilkenny sub aqua club, Michael Butler said that the divers were told by the Navy and a member of the Garda Síochána when they arrived at the site that morning “that they would take our names and take prosecutions against us if we went down.”
The search continues today for both Pat Colfer, skipper of the vessel the “Rising Sun” who has been missing since Tuesday evening of last week, and diver Billy O’Connor, who has been missing since early Thursday evening.
Coastguard Units from Carnsore Point, Rosslare, Fethard, Dunmore East and Kilmore Quay have been searching the inshore area, while civil defence units and local volunteers have been combing the shoreline.
At sea, the Kilmore Quay Lifeboat and the Fethard Lifeboat have been searching, accompanied by the Coast Guard helicopter.
The search is being co-ordinated by the Naval vessel, the L.E. Orla.
The Granuaile arrived at the site on Sunday morning after travelling from Cork, carrying a team of fourteen naval divers, a de-compression chamber, a remote operating vehicle and surface diving equipment.
The Granuaile took up position above the wreck of the Rising Sun with the intention of allowing the naval divers to investigate the wreck and the surrounding area. The dives over the past number of days have, however, so far been concluded without result.
On Sunday last, relations deteriorated rapidly between the Navy, the Coast Guard and club divers after a diving team made up of divers from the Hook and Kilkenny sub aqua clubs were ordered not to dive at the site.
The instructions not to dive were issued by the Navy on foot of a one-mile exclusion zone which has been imposed by the Irish Coastguard around the sunken boat.
Vincent Furlong of the Hook sub aqua club described the despair the divers in the club are feeling at being excluded from the search for both Pat Colfer and Billy O’ Connor.
“It’s just terrible that we are not being allowed to do what we are trained to do,” he said. “We do this every weekend. And it’s terrible that we are now being told we can’t dive for Billy. I’ve done a lot of diving with Billy. He taught me to dive and you’d think that this would be the least thing we’d be allowed to do for him”
Vincent, who was present with the dive team that made it out to the exclusion zone earlier in the day, described how “the Navy just came alongside and ordered us to move outside the exclusion zone.
“It happened on a number of occasions. We’d move outside the exclusion zone and wait for a while before we’d move back in again.
“We just wanted to make sure that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing without upsetting them in any way.
“They only entered the water after the dive window (a period when the water would be suitable for divers to go down) had closed.
“I’ve spoken with the families and they are aware of the difficulties we’re facing down here. They’re very bitter about it.
“We have the expertise and the equipment and I can’t understand why we are not being allowed to work along side the Naval Diving Unit on this.”
Site ‘safe for diving’
Vincent, who also went out on the boat with Billy O’ Connor on his last dive, rejected any suggestions that the exclusion order was in place for valid health and safety reasons.
“What happened with Billy was not a result of the diving conditions on Thursday,” he said. “Words can’t describe what happened but the conditions were reasonable. It wasn’t bad. It was diveable ... favourable even. We didn’t see any problems with the water conditions otherwise we wouldn’t have dived.
“The dive went as planned. We’ve no idea what happened with Billy. We can’t understand what happened but we just want to go down and get him back now.
“The divers saw the wreck on Thursday. They didn’t see him but the boat was reported as sitting on its keel at the bottom. There was nothing dangerous about the wreck.”
Navy misjudged dive window
“The Navy only got down to 20 metres today because they went into the water only after the dive window was closed,” said Kilkenny sub-aqua’s Michael Butler on Sunday night.
“They didn’t make the bottom and at the same time they stopped us from doing our job. We have a dive team that has been diving that depth and deeper for the last number of years. They’ve all been to 80 and 90 metres this year and are very familiar with the area.”
Sean Murray of Hook sub aqua club added to this saying that: “Billy was there for everybody when he was called on. He was the first man on the scene whenever a tragedy occurred at sea.
“In the papers, they’ve been saying he dived the Pisces and in Duncannon but Billy was diving as far back as the Cahill and the Gleeson incidents.
“He’d be out before first light in the morning and stay there until well after dark. And there is a sense that now when he is the one who is lost; he is being robbed of that same courtesy.”
Eamonn Foley of the Irish Underwater Council said that there are huge levels of frustration for both the families and the divers wanting to join the search on their being excluded by the Coast Guard.
“There is a lot of frustration here on the part of the divers as to why we are not being let carry out the dives we feel we can do,” he said.
“But there have been no issues of conflict and we have, as an organisation rowed in behind the Irish Coast Guard coordinator, David Meyler and we have respected the exclusion zone in place.
“We had 11 boats out yesterday and 13 boats out today and we are carrying out a well co-coordinated surface search. We have a huge number of qualified and able divers who will be able to dive should the Navy feel they are unable to do so.”
Mr. Foley said the position of the Irish Underwater Council was that the search would at all costs continue.
“There are two bodies to be returned to be shore and the search will not be concluded until those bodies are returned to their families.
“That’s why we have a surface search on for Pat, the skipper of The Rising Sun. And we want to put divers down because, we’re convinced at least at this stage, that Billy O’ Connor remains in close proximity to where he was lost.”