Recovery Operation

Chapter 2 – Recovery Operation

I have been addicted to mountains for thirty years. In that time they have been my refuge, my workplace and my drug of choice. In thanks to these special places and what they have given to me, I have put a bit back through voluntary work in Mountain Rescue Teams in Scotland for ten years.

When I moved to Donegal in late 1996, after a period of finding my feet on the local mountains, I sought out the local rescue team. I joined up and started training. The skill level, compared to a Scottish team, was low, however, the enthusiasm level was high and the team demographic was promising. At each subsequent training evening there seemed to be another young team member that I hadn’t previously met. The older, stalwart members of the team seemed to come from a First Aid Order of Malta background rather than a mountaineering background. The choice of kit that the team had acquired over the years seemed to reflect this. Clearly they hadn’t been on anything that remotely could be termed a rescue in the mountains despite being in, for Ireland, a very mountainous county.

I would later learn that there is no native tradition in Donegal of hill walking and, subsequently, there isn’t the level of “call out” that, say, the Kerry team receives. That said, I was happy to be in the team and waited on the first “call out”. The waiting went on and on, until one morning the phone rang. The team had been called out.

I drove through the rain of a Donegal winter’s morning at a speed that wasn’t wise. The cascade of water overwhelmed the wipers on the Volkswagen Jetta. I couldn’t slow down as there was, maybe, a life depending on my prompt arrival at a Garda station in very rural West Donegal. I was pleased with myself that I was the first to arrive at the Garda station, but also perplexed that I was the only one there. The call out officer had phoned my home in Letterkenny and said the team was called out and told me where to go. There were no more details. I was out of the house in less than five minutes. My training in Scottish mountain rescue had required being ready to go within ten minutes at the outside. The only thing to do was to jump into the kit that lived on the top of my rucksack under the stairs, fill a flask with boiling water and jump into the car.

I had been training with the Donegal rescue team for a month or so; this was my first live “call out”. It was good to feel involved again after moving over from Scotland. I had missed the mountain rescue “buzz”. I was operating a guiding company at the time in the Derryveagh Mountains so I was ideal for the team. Apart from me, they all seemed to be local lads. Inexperienced compared to a Scottish team, but fine, fit lads who were willing to learn.

The Mountain Rescue Land Rover stumbled round the corner twenty minutes later. I was highly unimpressed that they had taken longer from Gweedore, where the van was based, than I had from Letterkenny. My journey was at least twice as long as theirs. Still there was no sign of the police. If this was a call out Donegal style, then it was very different from one in Scotland. Still I was trying to make a good impression, so I said nothing. When in Rome etc. I got out of the car, swung my rucksack onto my back and marched over to the team leader who was in the passenger seat of the Land Rover Defender. I told him that I had got the call at just after 07.00hrs and that I had been here for the last ten minutes and that there was no sign of the Gardai. I asked him “what happens now?” “We wait for the Guards.” The waiting went on for another forty minutes. The Mountain Rescue volunteers huddled in the back of the Land Rover that was fitted out as an ambulance and tried to stay warm. They jostled on the padded crew seats to stay warm as they tried to avoid jagging into mounted oxygen and entonox cylinders. The various paraphernalia of first aid was in the way of a comfortable sit down out of the driving rain. I offered my car to a few of the lads. I walked back to the car, threw the rucksack into the boot and got back into the driver’s seat trying to fight the feeling of anti-climax. I started the engine and got the heater going. One of the Donegal lads joined me. As he slid into the passenger seat I asked him: “Is this normal for a call out here?” He gave an embarrassed smile that I would later learn was his non-verbal response to most questions. He would later become a skilled dog handler; one of the few qualified handlers of air scenting, search dogs on the island of Ireland. I had just met this man and the attribution error on my part was to misinterpret his quiet smile. I subsequently learnt, was a common response from him. What did the smile mean? Maybe he was a bit slow, I thought. Not knowing what else to do, I chatted about the mountaineering kit I was wearing. The team had standard issue waterproofs, but some of the lads seemed dangerously ill equipped for a day in the Donegal rain. I chatted about the special kit I was wearing, a Scottish invention that worked a bit like a wet suit. Just the job for a day like this I told him and when would the police turn up? Another smile. I told myself to chill; maybe the call out was a mistake. The call out officer, a retired member of the team, had received a call from the guards. I was quite sure of that in my own head.

A car pulled round the corner in the picturesque village over the hump back bridge and parked outside the small Garda station. A plump, middle-aged man in wellies and an oiled sweater got out and unlocked the barracks door. “That’s us,” said my taciturn colleague. It did indeed work as a releaser cue as the rest of the team debussed, stretched and stumbled over to the open door. After all of this the Jetta seemed corruptingly warm. The big tough mountain man from Scotland didn’t want to go out into the cold and the wet! I jumped out and jogged over through the open door. The police barracks was essentially an old house that had been, after a fashion, converted. On the door was a large intercom. I would later learn that this was the “green man”; an intercom system installed in part time stations in rural areas that got a caller through to a 24-hour station within the division. I heard a man speaking, but I could not make out what was being said as I was at the back. I presumed that it was the man in the sweater who was addressing the team. I shuffled through to the front and the Donegal lads seemed happy for me to get to where I could see and hear. I took out a policeman’s notebook from the kangaroo pocket on my buffalo shirt. The man stopped talking and I was introduced by the team leader as a new member. A “Scotchman”. I nodded and let the Guard get on with his briefing. We had now wasted upwards of an hour and a half. This, I thought, had better be good.

“There’s no hurry with this one, lads.” There was a code in his words that passed me by. Later on I would muse on those times as an adult when you recall a childhood memory of a conversation that took place in front of you between two adults in your life that literally went over your head. You listened intently to every word at the time, but could glean no real sense of what was being said. You could only process it in your head, the head of a child. One day in your thirties or your forties you recall the conversation word for word and POW! You finally decipher the conversation because you replay it in your head, the head of an adult. “Oh my God, she thought she was pregnant!” “Yeah, and he wasn’t sure it was his!” Or something equally adult and, subsequently, totally incomprehensible to a child. That is how I would remember that sentence in the years to come in my time in Donegal Mountain Rescue Team, “No hurry with this one lads.”

We were told that a man from the village had gone missing a few days ago. He lived alone. He had last been seen on the Monday when he had gone to the post office to cash in his social welfare money. He had good neighbours who usually kept an eye on him, nodded to him, chatted with him and had him in for dinner now and again. He was fifty-nine and unmarried. When it came over the local radio that he was missing his neighbours were already on the road out of the county on a holiday. They had keys to his house and so they swung the car round and headed for home. When they got back to the village they went to his house, opened the door and saw that the social welfare money was, to a penny, on the kitchen table. This had been two days ago. When no one had seen the man for over a day people began to ask questions. Not long after that there was a full-scale search on for him. That is when the team was called out. Our task was to check the areas adjacent to any body of water locally. There was indeed no hurry with this one; we were looking for a corpse.

On reflection we seemed to start with the most unlikely places in our search area and work back to the most likely. The year was 1999. At this stage neither the Gardai nor the mountain rescue team had people trained in search management. That would in time change, but in 1999 it was a completely untrained effort. We stumbled across bogs in horizontal rain and checked out any small body of water. My trekking poles were utilised as prods into dark stagnant water checking that there was nothing there except water. We searched fruitlessly for the whole morning. At this stage I was becoming concerned about the core body temperature of some of the young searchers. It wasn’t my place to say, but a couple of them were wearing jeans, which were by now, of course, saturated. It had not been my plan to treat young mountain rescue volunteers for hypothermia on a routine search. This wasn’t Scotland so I kept my own counsel.

Whatever their lack of kit or training they were out in this dog of a day, volunteering for a fairly nasty task and for that they had my respect. We got the call on the radio to return to the Garda barracks. The Land Rover was packed with bodies and it lurched back to the village. We were re-tasked with walking the local river from the humpback bridge all the way to Dungloe. As this was told to us the rain got heavier. The team split into two at the bridge and each sub unit took one side of the riverbank. This would be a long task. The riverbank was lined with briars and thick hedges. The entire undergrowth, yard by yard, had to be probed and prodded with sticks or trekking poles. It was going to take a long, long time to search this riverbank. Map memory told me that it was about 15 kilometres into Dungloe from this spot. Suddenly the searching stopped as a message was passed from searcher to searcher. The unit had been contacted by radio from the Land Rover based in the village. Something had developed. We had to return to the village. We trudged back to the village through fields. By this point many of the young, ill-equipped volunteers were completely soaked and once they had stopped moving they would inevitably start to chill. On return to the village, the pub next to the Garda barracks was open. This meant an open fire where kids in saturated jeans could stand and produce steam like races horses in a paddock. A couple of the lads sought solace in pints of lager. I asked the girl behind the bar if there was anything hot, like food, available.

Soup was being prepared I was told. It was the best news all day. The soup duly appeared and I proffered a twenty to the girl and told her to get bowls of soup for every member of the team present. Warmed from the inside we were ready to start again. We waited and waited. Then a van came into the village.

Another fine body of men jumped out and started slipping into dry suits and checking scuba gear. The sub aqua lads had been called in. This sequence of events, mountain rescue, then sub aqua, would become a regular theme of the operations in Donegal over the next few years. While we had been trailing the riverbank the guards had received information about the man. He had been sighted at a slipway on the river very near his home. I would learn in the years ahead that this is what a trained Search Manager would have expected to happen to a “Despondent”. This category of missing person is rarely found more than two kilometres from the point they were last known to be or where they were last seen. They often head for bodies of water because, as the title suggests, a “Despondent” is considering taking their own life. They are not “lost”. They know exactly where they are. Moreover, they do not respond to attempts to find them in the way that, say, a lost hiker would. The guards came back to the barracks as we milled around and thanked us for our efforts. We were no longer needed.

No one talked about the operation we had taken part in the following Tuesday night at training in the team HQ in the industrial estate at Gweedore. We practised CPR, Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation, how to keep an unconscious person alive by breathing for them and pumping their heart. The team had extensive first aid equipment. One of the more senior lads told me, that although it was part of Mountain Rescue to have this kit and be able to use it he had never known the team to be in a position to use the stuff “for real”. It seemed an appropriate time to ask him how common had been the operation last week.

“Loads of that stuff” he told me.

“Some times they turn up.”

“Other times?” I asked

“Like yer man.”

“They got him out?”

“Aye, they brought him out of the water with his arms folded. That is how he stepped into that river.”

That image would not be far from my consciousness over the next few days. I did not know the man, so I had to imagine what he had looked like in life and indeed, in death. I thought of the blackness of the water as it enveloped him. As he sank down through the darkness. Did he open his mouth to let the water rush in? What was there to meet him at the bottom? Was the place home to a submerged dump? Was it the resting place of old cookers and bikes? What was down there when he reached the bottom? Was he already dead? Was there thick underwater vegetation that tangled his legs and held him fast? I wondered, but could not know.

I found it difficult to imagine fish.