Tit Bonhomme survivor describes trawler disaster at inquest

Tuesday 21 May 2013 22.01
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Abdelbaky Mohammed gave evidence on the opening day of the inquest
Abdelbaky Mohammed gave evidence on the opening day of the inquest
The Tit Bonhomme sank off west Cork in January 2012
The Tit Bonhomme sank off west Cork in January 2012

The inquest has opened into the deaths of five fishermen on board the fishing trawler Tit Bonhomme, which sank after it hit rocks at the entrance to Glandore Harbour in Cork last year.

Counsel for the family of the deceased skipper Michael Hayes has criticised the failure of the company which handles 999 emergency calls to pass on vital information to gardaí about the tragedy.

The Tit Bonhomme sank in heavy seas after the trawler hit rocks and suffered a catastrophic grounding at Adam Island, 2km from the safety of Union Hall on 15 January last year.

Five of the six crew members on board died, including skipper Michael Hayes, three Egyptian fishermen and Kevin Kershaw from Dublin, who was on his first trip to sea.

This morning, family and friends of the five who lost their lives gathered for the inquest into their deaths in Cork.

As well as witness testimony, they heard recordings of two 999 calls made from the Tit Bonhomme on Mr Kershaw's mobile phone.

In the first of these calls, the operator at the Emergency Call Answering Service was told the Tit Bonhomme was aground having hit an island on the way into Union Hall.

The caller asks for a helicopter before adding "please hurry".

Counsel for the family of Mr Hayes asked if it was not extraordinary that none of that information was picked up by the operator and passed to the garda to whom the 999 call was transferred.

The inquest heard it took a second emergency call from the Tit Bonhomme before the alarm was raised and the emergency services responded.

Earlier, Egyptian fisherman Abdelbaky Mohammed, the only survivor of the fishing disaster, told the court that he survived because he grabbed the belt of a lifejacket.

Mr Mohammed, with the aid of an interpreter, listened as his statement was read to the court by Superintendent Colm O'Sullivan.

He described how he woke when a blow hit the trawler - he said it was not a big bang - more like suddenly hitting the brakes in a car.

He turned on the lights and there were four people in the cabin, his brother Wael, Attea Shaban and Kevin Kershaw. A fifth member of the crew, Saied Ali Eldin, was not there but he thought he could be on the bridge.

The court heard it was difficult getting from the cabin to the bridge because the engine and lights were gone and water was everywhere.

Mr Mohammed said there were huge waves and water was getting into the wheelhouse. The boat was being rocked and twisted in all directions by the sea.

The inquest was told the skipper passed out life jackets to the crew and although nobody could stay on their feet they managed to put on the jackets.

At one point Abdelbaky Mohammed said he was holding onto a rail but the power of the water ripped this off and shoved him and the rail against the other side of the wheelhouse.

Mr Kershaw had a mobile phone and Mr Hayes asked him to dial 999. The young man replied he did not have any credit and they all shouted at him that it was a free call.

After speaking with an emergency operator, he gave the phone to the skipper who gave their position.

Abdelbaky Mohammed said it was not possible to get to the life rafts.

The sea water started coming through the broken glass in the wheelhouse and he opened the door to let the water out but said the power of the sea washed him out.

He described how his clothes and life jacket were ripped off.

He said he drank a lot of water and the sea water was pushing him down but he grabbed at the belt of the lifejacket and this pulled him up to the surface.

Without the lifejacket, he said, he would not have survived.

He said he saw the lights coming from the harbour and the green navigation light and he started swimming towards it.

He was in the water for up to two hours before he reached the shore and said he could not stand he was so exhausted. He told the court he was so cold he looked for earth and leaves to warm himself up.

Sometime later Abdelbaky Mohammed spotted the rescue boat and started screaming. All he was wearing when he was airlifted into the helicopter was a t-shirt, boxer shorts and the life jacket.

The inquest is taking place before Coroner Frank O'Connell and a jury.