A retired Garda Sergeant from Waterford who was a member of the Garda Diving Team for 30 years, 18 of them as leader of the unit, appealed this week for an end to “inhumane and cruel treatment” of relatives of missing persons.

Former Garda Sergeant Thomas Lavery was speaking in the wake of the refloating off the Waterford coast the week before last of the “Maggie B” and the “Pere Charles” which sank in March 2006 and last January, respectively, with the loss of seven fishermen’s lives. Grieving relatives of the dead men were treated insensitively, he complained.

A native of Waterford city who was raised near Dunmore East, Mr. Lavery, who lives in Dublin, was a member of the Garda Diving Team from 1974 until 2004 when he retired and headed up the unit from 1986 onwards.

During that time, he told The Munster Express, he was involved in all the marine tragedies around the Irish coastline, including the sinking of “The Jenalisa” off Dunmore East on February 5, 1996, with the loss of three lives.

Now Liaison Officer for Missing in Ireland Support Services, a voluntary organisation established to help the families of missing people, he was in Dunmore, representing that group, on November 7 and 8 as the sunken fishing vessels were raised from the seabed.

On the second day he travelled out to sea with the families to the wreck of the “Pere Charles” and witnessed “the awful despair” on their faces as they viewed the broken vessel. Then on returning to the pier they all dispersed.

Not a cup of tea

Commenting on that, Mr. Lavery said: “Pity there was not a cup of tea and a chat before they parted. After all, their loved ones had perished together at sea and the families might not ever come together again”.

Referring back to the tragedy of “The Jenalisa”, he said the body of Conor O’Grady was recovered shortly afterwards but Peter Nolan and Niall Power were never located. He subsequently produced a report, with recommendations, but “due to red tape” nothing ever became of it.

The Navy stated at the time that they were governed by Military Law and prevented from answering questions.

“The point I’m trying to make is that families, relations and friends are treated very inhumanely. That was the case then and still is today”, he stated.

“In 1996 the families objected to the wreck of “The Jenalisa” being stored in Waterford. This time the “Maggie B” was left in Dunmore Harbour, further torturing the bereaved families. MCIB reports will point to (boat) weight, stability and centre of gravity as cause (of the tragedies) and make recommendations, but they will not be implemented because producing regulations is one thing, policing them quite another”.

Mr. Lavery suggested that for the future serious consideration should be given to liaison structures being created between the authorities and the affected families in the event of such tragedies. He believes the gardai should be given that task in conjunction with specially trained personnel, such as those involved with his organisation.

He said the gardai, as the civil authority, had an obligation to the Coroner and other agencies were there as aids to the gardai. He alleged that recently in Dunmore East untrained people were contacting families with “substandard information” which added to their grief. That should not happen.

Imelda Keenan

Recalling a particular instance of a missing person in Waterford, he said that on January 3, 1994, Imelda Keenan (22), from Mountmellick in County Laois, went missing in the city. On December 12, 1995, while her family were still “desperate for any scrap of news” the body of a female was washed up on a beach in Wexford. That body was buried in a grave in Crosstown Cemetery in a grave underneath a headstone with the inscription “Unidentified Female”.

Neither the Keenan family, nor those of others who had gone missing, were contacted at the time. “They have been treated cruelly by the lack of a proper database and system for dealing with these type of occurrences”, he accused. An investigation is now underway regarding the “unidentified female” in question.

Mr. Lavery concluded: “It is not about the fishermen or those who go missing so much as the people left behind, like the Keenans and those families who dispersed on Dunmore Pier last Thursday week, maybe never to meet together again. Let’s organise help for them as they try to cope with their tragedies”.