By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — New evidence about a British warship taking away part of the salvage recovered after the St. Phelim Vickers Viscount aircraft crashed with the loss of 61 lives 30 years ago has emerged from a retired Irish naval lieutenant-commander, Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke has revealed.
The officer, who was serving at a more junior rank on the LE Macha when it was acting as search coordination vessel off County Wexford in 1968, has written "a very interesting letter" to the minister.
"It is very thorough, comprehensive, straightforward and to my mind contains new information," O’Rourke said on RTE’s "Questions and Answers" program last week.
She said the officer had written to her about a "piece of salvage" that had been recovered and the marks he saw on it.
The officer claims he contacted his superiors to ask what should be done with it and he was told give it to the British ship.
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"It went away," the minister said. "This is the first time he has ever spoken about it."
The minister also expressed astonishment that a search by Aer Lingus and an assistant secretary in the department had failed to find any internal report by the airline into the crash.
She had ordered the search this week and her official had been told by the airline that there was no written report.
"I find that absolutely an amazing thing," she said. "I can’t believe it."
She was astonished that the state airline having lost 61 passengers and crew in its worst air disaster appeared to have never drawn up its own report.
All they had was "memory" of oral presentations made to Aer Lingus board meetings, but no minutes of the meetings.
"There is no report out in Aer Lingus. There is no report ever given in to what was then the Department of Transport on the Tuskar Rock. There is nothing to be found."
The Minister is to meet relatives of the crash victims next week following her discussions with outgoing British Ambassador Dame Veronica Sutherland earlier this month.
They agreed that Irish and British air accident investigators would review all surviving documentation surrounding the tragedy. It is also reported that the official file on the crash compiled by the British Ministry of Transport was destroyed four years ago.
The file had been compiled by the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the MOT but was shredded following a review in 1994. It had not been selected by the Public Record Office for permanent preservation in the British National Archive.
The release of documents by the National Archive Office in Dublin on Jan. 1 under the 30-year rule only revealed a small file involving letters of condolence.
There has been renewed speculation that the St. Phelim may have collided with a rogue surface-to-air missile or a target drone but the British have denied anything was in the air on the Sunday of the crash and Welsh launching sites were all closed down.
The Macha was a second-hand corvette, formerly called HMS Borage, which was bought from the British in 1946. One of only two seaworthy warships in the Irish navy in 1968, it was in Killybegs, Co. Donegal, when the St. Phelim crashed in March 1968 and sailed for Wexford to take over as search controller from HMS Hardy.
The so-called "Task Force Rosslare" undertaking the search eventually included a second corvette, LE Cliona, whose crew had been recalled from leave.
British vessels working on the search included HMS Penelope, HMS Shoudton, HMS Clarbeston, HMS Iveston, HMS Nurton, HMS Bronnington, HMS Reclaim (diving and rescue) and RN salvage vessel Uplifter.
The records of the time for these ships are also understood to be missing.