The couple, reported to be “mad about taking photographs”, climbed over safety barriers, with their children, in order to take the typical “end of Europe” photo.
It is something so many holidaymakers do, warn locals who have become resigned to holiday cliff tragedies.
A fireman at the scene on Sunday told the Resident that Maritime Police should now act to remove all trace of the little paths that run along the side of the cliff.
“The paths encourage people,” José Dias of Almoçageme fire station explained. “Tourists think they must lead somewhere. They climb the fences – not thinking that they have been erected to protect people’s lives – and then terrible things like this happen.”
On Sunday morning, an Air Force Kamov was still trying to airlift the bodies from where they lay at the bottom of a ravine.
“It’s a very difficult place to access,” explained Dias. “The cliff there is unstable. It is taking time.”
Up at the top of the cliff beside the lighthouse fire engines were all stationed on a cordoned-off section of land. The path the couple had taken with their children was easily visible, but no one was on the site.
Slowly, details of what exactly happened emerged.
The family had apparently gone up the path between the lighthouse and the edge of the cliff, and – telling their children, aged 5 and 6, to stay back – the parents had approached the drop down to the ravine to take the kind of shot everyone visiting the landmark likes to take.
As a large sculpted cross at the point proclaims: “This is the point where the land meets the sea” – the western-most tip of Europe.
Initially, news services reported that parents Michal and Hania Mackowiack, in their early 30s, had posed while photos were taken by their children – but later it became clear they had been intent on taking a “selfie” – and that they had warned their children not to get any closer.
According to Correio da Manhã – the first news service to reach Cabo da Roca on Saturday – a mobile phone was found at the top of the cliff, “near to the children”. It had registered three photos of the family at the spot, each with a minute’s time difference. In the last, all you could see was a “fuzzy blue image”.
“I didn’t see the couple fall,” security guard José Gonçalves explained from the cape’s tourist post. “But a Spanish couple saw everything. They rushed to the aid of the children and brought them back down.
“They were traumatised. It is the kind of thing they will never forget,” he added.
As INEM emergency services gave the children psychological support at the scene, rescue attempts went ahead until nightfall – only to resume on Sunday morning.
“These kinds of tragedies happen far too often”, Gonçalves echoed the words of fireman José Dias. “People just don’t think. So often I have seen situations where all it would take is a puff of wind and down would go a group of smiling Japanese … Tourists are so keen to get the perfect photograph, they forget their own safety.”
Gonçalves added that the spot was also a magnet to people intent on suicide. “We’ve had all kinds. There was once one woman who came with all her cats. The whole lot went over the edge. It was terrible”.
Happily, he recalls one suicide bid that ended well. “I managed to talk her out of it. Then, a year later she turned up with some friends to thank me. It made me want to cry.”
According to press reports, the Mackowiack family had been living in Portugal for some years, in the Belém area of Lisbon.
“Cabo da Roca was one of the places where Michal and Hania often went to take photographs,” writes CM.
The couple’s shots are featured on a number of sites and blogs promoting Portugal, and senior researcher Michal – working on a doctorate thesis at Lisbon University – wrote recently on a Polish website that “nothing compares to the quality of life in Portugal”.
The couple’s death left neighbours in Belém’s Rua do Embaixador in states of absolute shock.
According to CM, one who used to look after the couple’s children contacted the authorities to offer to look after them until next-of-kin from Poland arrived, “but the law does not permit it”.
The children, Leo, 6, and Sophie, 5, have been in the constant care of counsellors since losing their parents, and were reported to have slept the first night following the tragedy “well”.
Cabo da Roca is Portugal’s most westerly point, and thus the western-most tip of Europe. Coach-loads of tourists visit the point every day, at weekends arriving long before 9am. The last coaches usually leave after nightfall.
By NATASHA DONN firstname.lastname@example.org