Chinook crash victim’s daughter’s heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Kintyre

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The daughter of one of the Mull of Kintyre RAF Chinook crash victims has thanked the ‘wonderful people’ of Kintyre for their hospitality and support 25 years after the devastating incident which claimed 29 lives.

Joanne Savage’s dad Billy, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, perished in the helicopter crash on June 2, 1994, which took the lives of all on board – 24 other passengers, many of them leading Northern Ireland intelligence experts, and four crew.

The helicopter was on its way from RAF Aldergrove near Belfast to Inverness when it crashed into the Mull of Kintyre hillside in thick foggy conditions.

Ms Savage, who lives in Northern Ireland, told the Courier: ‘After that horrific time in our lives, I often think about the wonderful men and women who helped that evening. I think about what they must have witnessed throughout the rescue.

‘I can’t stop thinking about how, maybe, they were never officially thanked for their hospitality and support throughout that whole horrid time. I am so glad I am now getting the opportunity to let them know that we haven’t forgotten, even after 25 years.’

Ms Savage also thanked those who provided accommodation in Campbeltown for family members who travelled to visit the place where their dads and husbands lost their lives.

‘I really, really want to put it across to all those people of Campbeltown how very, very thankful I am to them,’ Joanne said. ‘How I often think of those people as wonderful human beings and how I never got a chance to express my gratitude for comforting and supporting me.’

Two special commemoration services were held in Kintyre on Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary of the incident, which has become known as the RAF’s worst peacetime disaster.

More than 100 people attended a service in Southend Parish Church at 11.45am and about 50 were at a second service at 3pm at a memorial cairn built near the crash site.

Relatives of the victims joined locals and representatives from many organisations, including the Royal British Legion Scotland, Police Scotland, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, HM Coastguard, the RNLI, and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, at the services.

Reverend Steve Fulcher, of Southend Parish Church, who led both services, told the Courier: ‘The services were very emotional for any who remember that day. The change in the weather during the day reminded us all how quickly conditions on the Mull of Kintyre can be transformed, which was poignant. It was an emotional day but very healing.

‘I would like to express my appreciation to everyone who contributed to the day, especially Reverend Roddy McNidder, Southend Community Council and the community of Southend, official guests and everyone who attended the commemoration.’

Rev McNidder, who was the minister at Southend at the time of the crash and supported families of the victims afterwards, told the Courier: ‘It was a privilege to be invited to take part in the services. Coming back to Kintyre is very much like coming home as we lived there for 17 years, 10 of them in Southend when I was parish minster.

‘I am still in touch with, and was over the weekend, family members and know how much they appreciate the continuing love and compassion they receive from our communities.’

During the service at the cairn, Rev McNidder said: ‘We are gathered together this afternoon beside this beautiful memorial cairn fashioned and created by local craftsmen.

‘This lovingly-built cairn claims the ground in remembrance of the sadness of June 2, 1994, to honour your loved ones and also yourselves, your families and friends.

‘Each name inscribed on this cairn, and which shines out every time the sun reflects upon it, calls us to remember the unique person whose name is written there, and to acknowledge our memories, experiences and encounters with them, along with the hopes of what might have been over these 25 years, and years still to come.’

Rev McNidder moved from Southend to Ayr in 1997 to become chaplain to South Ayrshire Hospitals NHS Trust, retiring in 2016.  He now conducts Sunday services in Ayr St Columba-Lochside.

Argyll and Bute Lord Lieutenant Patrick Stewart, South Kintyre councillors Donald Kelly, Rory Colville and John Armour, Depute Provost Roddy McCuish and Brendan O’Hara MP attended the services.

Afterwards, Mr O’Hara said: ‘The events organised by the community to remember those who lost their lives on that night 25 years ago were both fitting and moving.

‘It was an honour to have been invited to attend this solemn event and I congratulate everyone involved in allowing the communities of Southend and those from further afield to come together to remember the terrible events of that night and to show their respects.’

Local musicians performed throughout the services, including pipers John McGeachy and, from Kintyre Schools Pipe Band, Fraser MacBrayne and Heather Millar, as well as Campbeltown Brass’s principal cornet player, Erin McLellan.

News that files relating to the crash, for which no definitive cause has been established, were set to be destroyed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) hit the headlines earlier this year.

Both Mr O’Hara and Rev McNidder were outspoken about their belief that the records should be preserved in the hope that one day the truth will be discovered.

Mr O’Hara said: ‘I would like to add my sincere thanks to the Church of Scotland and in particular Rev McNidder who has, for the past 25 years, campaigned for justice for those who lost their lives by seeking the truth about the circumstances surrounding this tragedy.

‘Had it not been for the tireless work of Rev McNidder, I fear much of the evidence which could lead us to establishing what exactly happened that night may not have been retained in official files.’

Rev Fulcher added: ‘The Church of Scotland General Assembly of 2019 had called on the MOD not to destroy the records of the crash, and we were pleased to be told by Mr O’Hara that he had recently been given an assurance this would be acknowledged.’

Mr O’Hara added: ‘I very much welcome recent confirmation from the MOD that they will not destroy the files that may in future shed light on the truth on why those 29 people died.’

Several photographs taken in the days following the incident were supplied to the Courier by Anne Cousin, centre organiser for Kintyre’s British Red Cross committee, which was disbanded last year. For more information on the role the group played after the crash, see next week’s Courier.