In the course of his 44-year career, Kieran Murray has helped save more than 1,000 lives.
Until his retirement last month he was the oldest and longest-serving search and rescue winch operator in the UK.
Kieran trained at Portland in Dorset, then went on to work with the Royal Navy’s Arc Royal search and rescue. He joined Bristow’s in 1979, then came to Shetland in 1983. Since that time, he has been involved in some of the most dramatic and dangerous rescues the islands have seen.
In a letter sent by the UK’s assistant chief of naval staff last month, Rear Admiral Fleet Air Arm Russ Harding praised Kieran for his dedication and his work, both with the Royal Navy and in civilian search and rescue.
“I am humbled that one man has given so much and saved so many”, wrote Rear Adm. Harding. “Having embodied the finest traditions of
the service, you can be immensely proud of your long and distinguished career.”
For Kieran, one of the most memorable times in this career came in November 1993. During that single month, the search and rescue team saved 109 people in four separate missions. The biggest of these involved the Latvian klondyker Lunokhod, which went aground below Bressay Lighthouse.
That was, he said, “the biggest and best one we’ve ever done … when we rescued a total of 56 people. It was just a classic ‘right place at the right time’.” That rescue remains the greatest number of lives saved by one helicopter in the UK.
Seven days later, another klondyker, the Borodinskoye Polye, hit Unicorn Rock off Hawk’s Ness in gale force winds and heavy seas. Thirty-six people were lifted from that vessel.
The following day, another six men were rescued from the fishing vessel Crusader. “That was a busy old month,” said Kieran.
He added, “it’s little ones that impress me”. He recalled the sinking of the Radiant Dawn, a small fishing boat, in April 1993. “It was the wee hours – two o’clock in the morning” he said. “So that was real darkness.”
The plan had been to keep the vessel afloat, so a pump was winched down and started. Once the first four crewmen had been lifted off, the helicopter needed to refuel, so left with only the skipper and Kieran still onboard the boat. The sea was flat calm, he said, and it was a very strange feeling.
“It was just the skipper and myself on this boat” he said, “and you hear the pumps going, then you can sense all the movement on the water which was previously calm, and we looked round, and there appeared to be thousands of gulls just sat there … and they were just sat waiting for this vessel to sink.”
By the time the helicopter returned, the skipper had decided the pumps would not be able to save the vessel.
“Myself and the skipper were winched into the aircraft” Kieran said. “And within minutes the boat sank. “The little ones like that – there’s nothing particularly dramatic per se, but it’s just something you always remember.”
On another occasion he remembers being winched onto a fishing boat, Elhanon, then having to climb down a ladder into the crew accommodation, “in the bowels of the ship”, where one crewman had a broken arm and another a broken leg.
“The first thing I had to ask for was a plastic bag … I was sick as a dog in this plastic bag. Once that’s done I could settle down and get on with it.” It took, he said, “forever, trying to get them up a vertical ladder with these breaks and … manoeuvre them around these tight spaces”.
It was to become an eight hour operation, and one of the most demanding he had ever had to undertake. But despite the difficulties, and the occasional bout of seasickness, Kieran said his role was totally satisfying. “That is the great thing about the job”.
In recent years, he has had the pleasure of working with his son, also called Kieran, who is a search and rescue captain. This was, he said, a “fabulous” experience. On his last weekend in the job, last month, the pair did three callouts together. “It was nice to leave on a high” Kieran explained. “Rather than finish on a training flight we finished on an actual job.”
Kieran will spend the first four months of his retirement on a round the world trip. But for someone who has been so involved in search and rescue for so long, and for whom the job has played such a central part of his life, it will be difficult to slip into retirement.
“Of course I’ll miss it” he said, emphatically. “Of course I’ll miss it.”