A major multi-agency mass-rescue exercise was held in Galway Bay this afternoon.
Codenamed ‘Eoghanaght’, the civil and maritime major incident exercise involved testing the response of search and rescue (SAR) agencies to a major ferry incident requiring the evacuation of passengers.
The operation involved both statutory and volunteer agencies including the Coast Guard, An Garda Síochána, RNLI, Defence Forces (Army and Air Corps) and National Ambulance Service.
The mock incident was staged in Galway Bay in an area for which the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) had issued an Air Navigation Restriction in a portion of airspace for the duration of the exercise.
The incident scenario involved a passenger ferry, Ceol Na Farraige, carrying passengers from Aran Islands to Rossaveal, declaring an emergency and reporting explosion in engine room. The crew declared their simulated emergency by issuing a radio distress call at 1.30pm.
The operation, run in real-time, involved the vessel’s crew extinguishing the blaze by activating the vessels own CO2 fire suppressant system.
However, the crew reported their vessel was taking on water ‘quite rapidly’ and listing to one side. Of the 61 passengers and 7 crew on board, 5 passengers and 1 crew member were reported missing ‘overboard’. Six mannequins were deployed in the water ahead of the exercise to act as ‘missing’ casualties.
Watch officers at the Irish Coast Guard’s Marine Rescue Sub Centre (MRSC), who coordinated the exercise, activated a Major Incident Response for the simulation and began tasking maritime search and rescue resources.
An Irish Air Corps CASA 235 fixed wing aircraft provided top cover support, circling over head for the duration of the exercise.
Boat units were dispatched to carry out a priority search for the six casualties reported overboard while the Shannon (Rescue 115) and Sligo (Rescue 118) based rescue helicopters airlifted casualties in rotation from the ferry to Connemara Airport at Inverin.
Defence Forces personnel were on board the casualty vessel playing the parts of passengers while personnel from the various emergency services were also on board as observers.
All other passengers were transported by the Aran Islands lifeboat to the harbour at Rossaveal after being evacuated from the ferry.
Coast Guard units from the Aran Islands as well as counties Galway and Clare were also involved. These included Inis Mór, Inisheer, Doolin, Kilkee, Killaloe, Costello Bay and Cleggan units as well as RNLI lifeboats from the Aran Islands and Galway City.
All six mannequins were recovered by boat crews within 90 minutes of the first distress call. Any passengers left on board the casualty vessel were transported by the Aran Islands lifeboat to the harbour at Rossaveal after being evacuated from the ferry.
Irish Coast Guard Divisional Controller John Draper said: “Today went very well. We were looking to test our search and rescue (SAR) response to a mass rescue incident at sea as well as exercising the inter-agency element of our maritime SAR response.”
“We are very grateful to everyone who took part including the Defence Forces, the ferry crew, Gardaí and of course the volunteer Coast Guard and RNLI crews,” he added.