The deaths of two kayakers in Portlaw, County Waterford on Wednesday evening has shocked communities at both ends of the island, with the circumstances of the tragedy now becoming clearer.
Philip Kelly, 31, from Aherlow in Co Tipperary, and Connie Smith, 33, originally from Killashandra, Co Cavan, drowned after getting trapped at a man-made weir on the river Clodiagh, a tributary of the Suir.
They had been kayaking with their friend, Derek Elliott, 26, from Knockaderry, Co Limerick – who survived – when the accident occurred shortly before 9pm.
Fatefully, the three men, having encountered a few “scary patches” prior to reaching the weir, had left the river and were making their way up a laneway beside the old tannery only to be frightened back by guard dogs. It was then they decided to re-enter the water.
The weir, which is part of the East Waterford Water Supply Scheme, is directly alongside Portlaw’s now-derelict cotton mill-cum-leather factory.
Praising his pals’ bravery, a tearful Derrick Elliott – who at an earlier stage in their journey was thrown out onto rocks, leaving him shaken up – said that none of the group, who’d kayaked from Waterford after meeting up after work, realised how turbulent the water was.
With the dogs having thwarted their intended escape, the more-practised pair tried to navigate the weir, Connie going first, but they soon spotted his upturned kayak, with the raging currents tipping him out.
“Phil went in to save him but he couldn’t and then they roared at me not to go in. So, I didn’t and I came up and went to get help,” a distraught Derrick said.
He and a local man, who came to his assistance, tried to rescue the stricken pair by lowering ropes and sticks into the water but quickly realised their efforts were in vain.
“We had all the safety gear but we just didn’t anticipate Mother Nature or the strength of it,” he stressed.
The Portlaw fire service and a Red Cross ambulance crew then arrived at the scene, while Irish Coast Guard units from Bunmahon and Dunmore East were also tasked by marine rescue control in Dublin at 9.20pm.
The Waterford-based SAR helicopter also arrived promptly but could not use its winching device due to overhead cables. The Carrick-on-Suir river rescue team assisted in the recovery of the men’s bodies: the first at around 10pm as it floated free from the weir; the second, which was trapped upriver before the weir was opened and it was released, an hour-and-a-half later.
Dunmore East Coast Guard member Jim Griffin said it was terrible for the people of Portlaw having “to watch this incident unfold in front of their eyes… our thoughts and our prayers are with the family and friends of those people.”
Portlaw Senator Paudie Coffey added: “There is a feeling of shock and desperation and our thoughts are with the families.”
His brother, local councillor Brendan Coffey, said the heavy rainfall earlier this week would have created a bit of a flow in the river, leaving it “quite dangerous.”
Michael Hickey of the Carrick River Rescue Crew stressed that the conditions at this particular location were “treacherous. It’s like being in a washing machine. It’s just churning all the time.”
It was the strength and volume of the water supply at Mayfield that first attracted the Malcolmsons to build a massive cotton mill there in 1825. A weir, with a fish-pass, diverted water to power three 30-ft water-wheels. The walled fish pass and weir was modified in recent years as part of a project to assist salmon to swim upstream.
Gardaí are continuing their investigations into the exact circumstances. Both the deceased men were experienced kayakers and mountain climbers. Derrick Elliott said his friends made sure he’d enough energy food before they set off on the tragic hour-and-a-half trip to their destination in Portlaw, where they’d earlier left one of their cars for the spin home.
Philip Kelly was an employee in the R&D labs at Teva Pharmaceuticals in Waterford, while John O’Shea, chief executive of GOAL, paid tribute to Connie Smith, a clerk of works with Waterford City Council since March 2008, and a volunteer with the third world charity. “Connie worked with us as an engineer in Afghanistan, Angola and Darfur from 2003 to 2005. It was only in recent weeks that he was in touch with us to ensure that we bore him in mind should any suitable posts have arisen overseas in the near future.”