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In Search of the Missing McCarthy, Mick

ISBN: 9781856356916

Renowned as one of the most skilled search dog handlers on both land and sea, Mick McCarthy has over twenty years experience of searching for missing persons. He has experienced first-hand the dangers, thrills, tragedies and triumphs of search and rescue operations carried out on flood-swollen rivers, raging seas, through woodland, bog land and on treacherous mountains, often in the dead of night. 


McCarthy's captivating story provides a deeply personal account of how a boy who loved the company of dogs grew up to become a man obsessed with dogs and their training, ultimately leading to the idea of qualifying his dog for voluntary search and rescue work, regardless of the cost, even to his personal life. Based on his abiding philosophy that practice makes perfect, he paints a vivid picture of the characters and dogs behind search and rescue operations, the painstaking demands of training and the rigorous requirements for qualification.


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Darkness was setting in when we reached Slieve League. Tensions were running high as fears were now growing that the boy had fallen from the cliffs on the opposite side of the mountain. Searchers had come from everywhere - over a hundred volunteers turned up. A garda superintendent was in charge of co-ordinating the various search teams, which included the Killybegs Coast and Cliff Service Unit, the Shannon Marine Rescue Centre and An Garda Síochána. The Air Corps and the British Royal Navy came and went, flying searchers to and from the scene.
The night was dry but freezing cold. Could the eleven-year-old survive a second night on the mountain in sub-zero conditions? Would the Boy Scout skills he had learned back home in Germany help protect him from the elements? Had he stuck with the Scouts basic rule of staying put when lost, or had he moved? The youngsters chances were looking slim, but we approached the situation with a very positive attitude, believing that we would find him alive.
We double-checked our gear and prepared to begin our search. A local farmers teenage son acted as our guide. He showed us the areas already searched, and we combed them again. Then we moved on, scouring the rugged, heathery terrain of the most dangerous mountain in south Donegal.
By now, Neil and I were the only human searchers left on the mountain. All of the other searchers had been sent home. Eliminating them from the scene would make it easier for the dogs to locate the boy, as their human scent would no longer be present on the mountain. Air-scenting dogs pick up every human scent in a given area, whereas bloodhounds hunt only for the particular scent of the missing person. But there were no bloodhounds available to us. Locating the boy could take hours. There was no time to waste.
Our dogs ranged up to half a mile away from us. Every now and then, when the lamps on their collars shone through the heather, we could pinpoint their location. We knew they were working well. Dogs search best in the dark as they work with their noses, not their eyes, and can detect scents a mile away or up to five miles in certain conditions. Air-scenting dogs work almost as well in daylight, but can occasionally be distracted by other animals or humans. In the dark, they are totally focused.
Hours passed without the slightest hint of progress. We were becoming increasingly concerned. The boy had been missing for nearly thirty-six hours. The treacherous cliffs nagged at our minds, reminding us of their thousand-foot drop into the Atlantic Ocean. But we remained optimistic.  Searching with the conviction that the missing person will be found alive helps focus the mind, gives that extra drive, that zip and essential sense of urgency.
At 4.30a.m. Neil suggested we move over the ridge to the back of the mountain, which was the opposite side to that identified by the Scouts as the location in which they had last seen the youngster. Time was moving fast, and we were aware that the other volunteers would return at first light. If they came back while we were still searching, they would have to wait in the farmyard. Although our dogs are trained to work with multiple handlers at the same time, and will do so ahead of line searchers, there is always a chance that the dogs can be put off by searchers inexperienced in dealing with search dogs. Time-wise, we were under pressure, but we pushed on, determined to find the boy.
Neil and Pepper searched upwards from the bottom. Dex and I worked downwards from the top. After just a further hundred yards, we would be finished with that particular area and switching to yet another part of the mountain. Suddenly, I heard Pepper indicating far below. Neil contacted me on the radio. At that stage, he was about a quarter of a mile below Pepper. Neil suggested I send Dex down to confirm Peppers indication. Dex made his way downhill, turned left, headed towards Pepper and indicated. Both dogs stood together facing a gully about fifteen feet deep and twenty feet wide, with a sheep fence on top. They cleared the fence, went further in and kept indicating.
Daylight was breaking. Neil and I could see various items in front of us: a guitar, pots and a frying pan. We could see no trace of the boy. But the dogs continued to indicate vigorously.


A year after SARDA Ireland was launched, a major tragedy in which hundreds were killed shook the very foundations of search-and-rescue organisations. The Lockerbie air disaster occurred on 21 December 1988 when a Pan American World Airways Boeing 747-121, named Clipper Maid of the Seas, exploded during a transatlantic flight from Heathrow Airport in London to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The explosion killed 243 passengers, sixteen crew members and eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, in south-west Scotland, where huge sections of the plane hit the ground. The deceased came from twenty-one different countries.
Dealing with such a horrendous aftermath stretched search-and-rescue resources to the limit and had a serious impact on search-and-rescue organisations. At the time, SARDA Ireland had only three internationally qualified search dogs: Pepper; a collie belonging to Neil; together with a golden retriever and a bearded collie, both belonging to Vicky and Mitch Cameron, a married couple from Northern Ireland. For a number of years, the three dogs and their handlers had trained regularly with SARDA Scotland. All were experienced mountain rescuers. When the Lockerbie disaster happened, they were summoned to the scene. None of them had ever dealt with the horrors of a plane-crash disaster before.
At least fifty international dogs, including police dogs, took part in the search. As well as having to look for bodies, the dog teams had to search for body parts and debris from the plane. Search dogs are initially trained to search for live bodies, but can quickly switch to a search for various articles simply by having a relevant item put before them and used as their toy for a few minutes.
Neil, Vicky and Mitch spent five days at Lockerbie over the Christmas period searching with the dogs. The horror and awfulness of finding human bodies left its mark on all three of them. Afterwards, Neil commented that his life could really be defined as before and after Lockerbie - it had been that traumatic. Pepper had recovered the remains of sixteen people. Within days of returning from Lockerbie, one of Vicky and Mitch's dogs died, reportedly from inhalation of aviation fuel, which had spread around the area. Later, some of the international search handlers involved in the search, who were extremely traumatised by what they had seen at Lockerbie, retired from their search organisations. Usually, the effect of dealing with such a tragedy might not surface for months afterwards and counselling is essential.
Because of the disaster, new structures came into force. An international search-dog association was set up in Britain: the British Overseas Disaster Unit. Neil and I were founding members, even though we were not British; rescue people have no international boundaries. Phil Haigh was elected as deputy leader with Dave Riley as team leader. Dave was well known in doggy circles, especially in Cumbria, where he acted as an assessor for the official search dog assessments. Other guys in the disaster unit included a camp manager, paramedics, a dentist, a doctor and a communications manager. Penny Kirby and Jim Greenwood were based in England to act as contacts and to deal with the press. At that stage, we had only six dogs on the team: two in Ireland and four in England. The organisation was willing to fly to any place in the world where dogs could be successfully used to search for people lost in disaster situations, such as flooding, mud slides or earthquakes.
Neil and I hoped that the Irish government might step in and, at the very least, offer us a training area at Collins Barracks in Cork or at Kilworth Camp, near Fermoy, but no such luck. Weve since learned through experience that the Irish government will only help out when its under the spotlight; such as in the later case of a missing German Boy Scout. When the focus of the international media was on Ireland, the government immediately lent a helping hand. A government jet was laid on to fly Neil and me from Cork to Donegal to take part in the search for the German lad. Other than that, we have never been offered any type of help. On the other hand, the British government couldnt do enough for us. It set us up with a training area in Northern Ireland, and we had the Royal Air Force at our beck and call.
Neil and I began to train together in earnest, but then a whole set of new rules came into play following a major mud-slide disaster in Afghanistan. The British Overseas Disaster Unit sent two of the teams dogs to Afghanistan to take part in the search for the living and the dead. But while the dogs proved successful in finding dead bodies, they ignored the live ones. After that, an order was issued that every dog on the team should be trained only to look for live bodies. This was impractical for dogs working in Ireland. Our dogs need to be cross-trained as, on average, nine out of ten people found here are deceased. This is primarily because civilian search-dog teams are not called in until one or two weeks after someone is reported missing.
At that stage, I decided to pull back from the disaster unit. I hadnt time to do specialist emergency training. I opted to make Ireland my priority and to stick with the cross-training. I felt I had no choice, as Ireland needed its own search dogs. Vicky and Mitch had already lost one of their dogs, and Neils dog Pepper had reached old age. The Lockerbie aftermath gave us that final push to qualify our dogs. It underlined the need for us at SARDA Ireland to increase our number of search dogs and search-dog handlers sooner rather than later, and made us more committed than ever to passing the official search dog assessment.
On 31 January 2001 Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was convicted of 270 counts of murder for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that he should serve at least twenty years before being considered for parole. Under Scottish regulations, prisoners can be released on compassionate grounds if they are considered to have only three months or less to live. In 2009 he was freed from jail on compassionate grounds after it was concluded that he would be dead in less than three months from prostate cancer. Megrahi had served less than nine years of his life sentence. Having been released, the bomber returned to Tripoli and defied the medical prediction.

A Mountain to Climb:

From the time SARDA Ireland was founded, search-dog training took up every spare minute of my time. Just as I had been obsessed with music and schutzhund training, I now became obsessed with training a dog for search-and-rescue work. Every hour outside of work was spent with the dogs. I trained seven days a week, including every Christmas day and all holidays.
I am ashamed to admit it, but I put my wife and family totally to one side. Unless they were training with me, they hardly saw me. Such neglect caused great difficulty at home, but I wasnt willing to listen to reason. Time and time again, I promised that as soon as I had qualified one search-and-rescue dog, I would ease back a little. It never came to be. Now, I realise I was on a roller coaster, and I didnt want to get off. To put it simply, it was an ego trip, a total obsession. I didnt care. I just wanted to keep going.
To make matters worse, doggy friends and fellow club members constantly doubted my ability to succeed. Often, they told me I would never qualify a dog for search-and-rescue work. Being as stubborn as I am, this was like showing a red rag to a bull. As friends who know me well will testify, if I am told I will not succeed, especially where dogs are concerned, I will go all out to prove that I can. In my mind, there was one, and only one, way to succeed, and that meant perfect practice. Once, I came across a book on schutzhund which stated, Practice does not make perfect. Its perfect practice that makes perfect. This became my mantra.
All through this time, Don was with me. He was caught up in the training as much as I was, but, being a single man, it didnt affect his home life as much as it did mine. As well as becoming dog trainers, we had to become members of a recognised mountain rescue team, obtain a current mountain-rescue first-aid certificate, be extremely proficient in compass work and reading a map, and be competent with a rope and harness. Knowing that we had a long, tough road ahead, we lined up everyone we knew to help.
Our families came up trumps. We depended heavily on them, especially to act as bodies. Without bodies, or helpers, training is impossible, as several people are needed to train a dog. Normally, a body has to hide in the woods or mountains in all types of weather and wait until found by the search dog. This type of search-dog training is based on air scenting, which means that a dog will find all humans in a particular area, whether they are the missing persons or innocent hillwalkers. When innocent walkers are found, the handler will explain the situation and ask them to leave the area of the search. Sometimes, these walkers may have seen or found evidence of the missing person, such as a backpack. If they are experienced hillwalkers, they may even help in the search.
When found, the bodies must reward the dogs with food or play, using a ball or some other toy. The dogs then learn to associate the toys with the find, until eventually the dogs believe that in all searches they are, in fact, looking for their toys. For that reason, the toy must always be produced at the point of the find. The bodies can make or break the dogs. Their input in training is vital, especially their reaction on being found, how they play with the dogs, and how they build up a relationship with them. Our usual bodies included my wife Marie, my sister Celine, as well as Dons brothers, Declan and Tom. And all of them often suffered absolute torture in an effort to help us train our dogs. While Don and I travelled comfortably around the country having a laugh in the front of the van, our helpers had to stay in the back with the dogs and endure lengthy journeys, such as trips down to Dingle and home again on the same day. They had no seating, and had to put up with being thrown from side to side on bumpy, winding roads, most of which were dotted with potholes. Much of the time, they were exposed to harsh weather conditions, and their clothing back then was totally inadequate for protecting them from the cold and rain, as we didnt have the proper outdoor gear.
Hiding out could last six hours, and I often found my wife crying with the cold while hiding under a rock up a mountain, having waited for hours to be located by the dog. Once, while she was acting as a body and waiting to be found in a cave in Carrauntoohil, two children out for a walk with their parents happened to look in. Marie was sitting at the back of the cave, and when she saw them, she just said, Hi! They got the shock of their lives, and ran off screaming. They probably thought they had found the mad woman of the mountains. Marie ended up screaming herself, on another training session, when a herd of goats descended upon her when she was halfway up the Devils Ladder. But she quickly hunted them by battering them with a fistful of stones.



ISBN 9781856356916

  • In Search of the Missing