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MCIB Report Into Death of Student Kayaking on Kerry River

1st March 2023
The incident section of the Upper Caragh river near Glencar, Co Kerry showing the location of the tree bough with arrow (right of picture)
The incident section of the Upper Caragh river near Glencar, Co Kerry showing the location of the tree bough with arrow (right of picture) Credit: MCIB

The Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) report into the death of a Donegal student during a kayaking trip in Co Kerry has said the outing was not properly assessed for risk.

Aisling O’Connor, 21, from Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, drowned after she became trapped under a tree branch in the Upper Caragh river near Glencar, Co Kerry, on November 2nd, 2019.

She was among a party of 27 on a trip organised by the University of Limerick (UL) Kayak Club.

The UL biochemistry student was resuscitated and transferred by helicopter to University Hospital Kerry, but she died two days later.

Another kayaker required medical resuscitation and hospitalisation, and the MCIB described his situation as “a near fatality”.

The 202-page MCIB report called on the UL Kayak Club to “immediately review its procedures and assessments prior to embarking on group river activities” and to examine its procedures in relation to Canoeing Ireland (CI) standards.

It has also recommended the kayak club should “suspend its activities until its safety regime is audited to a standard acceptable to Canoeing Ireland”.

The report says the prevailing conditions, including the features of the river, were “not suitable for all the members of the trip to manage safely”.

It says the trip was” not properly assessed for the risks attached to the prevailing conditions and having regard to the skills and experience of the group taking part in what is a high-risk sport”.

It says those in charge of identifying and assessing the risks in advance, and on the day, were “insufficiently trained and experienced themselves to be able to assess the risks given the combined factors of river conditions and the nature of the group”.

It says this arose as there was “a lack of adherence to the ULKC Safety Statement 2014 and the Trips Policy and Procedure which set out control measures, which led to a lack of accredited training, which in turn led to poor decision making”.

It says that had there being CI- qualified instructors available (or persons with recognisable equivalent training and experience) they “would have identified that the group was too large and its makeup too inexperienced and would not have approved a trip that involved a group of beginners in those conditions, and/or, having embarked would have realised that the conditions being experienced were not suitable and would have terminated the trip”.

It says the gaps in the club safety environment were “contributed to by the lack of any supervision/audit, or capacity to effectively supervise or audit, of the safety of university students engaged in high risk activities by the UL Students’ Union, and by the absence of any overarching, agreed, and communicated, spheres of responsibility between the ULSU and UL, leading to an environment at club level where there was a serious disregard of the ULKC Safety Statement 2014 and Trips Policy and Procedure, and CI recommended standards”.

The report notes that the Upper Caragh River was” a Grade 4 river on the day and a Grade 3 with parts at Grade 4 normally”.

“The river trip planners and leaders did not correctly gauge the river as a Grade 4 river despite the elevated river levels,” it says.

“The recent heavy rains in the locality resulted in the river level being higher, current flows being considerably faster and more powerful to the degree that the intermediate paddlers had difficulties in controlling their boats,”it says, noting that two casualties – one of whom died - were intermediates at Level 2 and Level 3 Skills competency.

The MCIB report says that “river trip planners and leaders made no risk assessment for the river trip on the Upper Caragh River”.

“Had they done so, the assessment of the corrected river grade that day (Grade 4) would have significantly affected the planning of the river trip process and either altered the composition of the river trip groups and/or the conduct of the river trip or may have re-directed the trip to a more suitable venue,” it says.

“ The absence of a comprehensive risk assessment was a causative factor in the capsize incidents,”it says and the kayak club’s 2014 safety statement was not adhered to.

The report says the absence of a contingency plan in the event of the leaders and seconds requiring closer supervision of an increased number of inexperienced kayakers due to the prevailing river conditions was a “contributory factor” in this incident.

The MCIB report makes a number of recommendations for UL Kayak Club, UL Students’ Union and UL, along with the Minister for Transport and Canoeing Ireland.

In its comment on the draft report, the UL Kayak Club defended planning for the trip.

In a joint statement, UL Student Life and University of Limerick said they were “extremely conscious of the heart-breaking loss of life at the centre of this tragic accident”.

“We remain absolutely committed to the health, well-being and safety of our student community of over 18,000 students,” they said.

“The MCIB report into the incident which occurred during a planned outing of the UL Kayaking Club in November 2019 contains recommendations that are relevant to UL Student Life, the UL Kayaking Club, University of Limerick, Canoeing Ireland and the Minister for Transport,” they said.

“UL Student Life and UL have and will continue to work together to consider the findings of the final MCIB Report and to implement the recommendations so that the highest possible safety standards are in place within all clubs to which our students are affiliated,” they said.

“While this was a most tragic accident, it is acknowledged that lessons can and will be learned as well as improvements made to ensure the safety of our student community,” they said.

A link to the full report is here

Published in MCIB
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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