26 Sept 2022

September 5: Learning lessons from bridge tragedy

I write in relation to the tragic accident at Thomond Bridge and wish to challenge the idea that “a change in legislation”, to ensure that a safety boat was in attendance whenever work was under way above the water, would ensure no repetition.

I write in relation to the tragic accident at Thomond Bridge and wish to challenge the idea that “a change in legislation”, to ensure that a safety boat was in attendance whenever work was under way above the water, would ensure no repetition.

But perhaps I could first offer my deep regret to the two families that their loved ones were lost in such a way and, as far as one can tell, so needlessly. My own opinions about our river will be known to those who think about it as deeply as I have done and may serve to change the prevailing mood away from simply grief.

Having spent 19 years at sea as watch-keeping officer, including 14 years as a maritime helicopter pilot and trainer, I have said on the record that the Shannon at Limerick is the most dangerous river in Ireland; that people who do not understand the river or its tidal environment are taking decisions beyond their experience; and that Limerick itself, as a corporate entity, does not have the slightest interest about what happens in, on or beside the river beyond the bits which suit the latest grand plan.

Capital of Culture 2020 is such a grand plan; safety along the riverbank is not (although I acknowledge that a slipway for voluntary search and rescue services has recently been made available).

I can demonstrate the fallacy in thinking that legislative insistence upon a safety boat would have saved TJ Herlihy and Bryan Whelan.

First, the cage in which they died is pretty much like the simulated helicopter/fixed wing cages in which maritime aircrew are trained in underwater escape procedures. The difference is that before each simulated escape exercise, in which aircrew are strapped into different crew positions and their particular ‘cage’ dropped randomly into the water under the supervision of properly equipped safety swimmers, there is a briefing. Each participant knows by heart the established procedure for escaping from their seats and each has a knife for slashing the webbing should the harness mechanisms jam. If all else fails, the swimmers will immediately get anyone who is not satisfactorily escaping out and up to the surface.

That pre-briefing instruction and formal check on currency in escape procedures is repeated before each operational flight over the water, whatever the aircraft, in order that the crew has every prospect of surviving should they find themselves in contingency circumstances without the immediate assistance of safety swimmers.

Second, had there been a safety boat on the river below Thomond Bridge when the accident happened, it would undoubtedly have focused on the survivor who did manage to free himself. And then, having rescued him and established that there were two more in the submerged cage, it would have attempted a rescue. But how effective would that rescue have been?

At best, and notwithstanding the expertise of the voluntary search and rescue services, they still would only have recovered two drowned people connected to a submerged cage by mechanisms designed for emergency situations on the land.

So, please, do not allow land-based thinking to legislate for what is essentially a maritime contingency. By all means use that expertise to pin down the failure that led to a “snapped” suspension cable. Instead, get maritime people, who are practised in sizing up difficult situations on/above the water and in looking for risks they understand through training and long experience.

Pull that expertise together, couple it with local knowledge, and charge that combined, specialist opinion with coming up with an adequate safety solution. That solution should begin – always, always, always – with a proper briefing and confirmation of currency in escape procedures. Any legislation that is needed should be geared to that effect and not to something that well-meaning but essentially land-based experience thinks might help.

Martin Kay


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