Saturday 27 May 2017

Nicola Anderson: How five beautiful lives were lost in an instant

A family is torn apart and a distraught mother is left with just one reason to go on - her baby girl, writes Nicola Anderson

Rescue hero Davitt Walsh cradles baby Rioghnach-Ann, whom he saved from the icy waters. Photo:Derry News
Rescue hero Davitt Walsh cradles baby Rioghnach-Ann, whom he saved from the icy waters. Photo:Derry News
Flowers at the scene where five people drowned in a car that slipped into Lough Swilly in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photo: Mark Condren
Louise James (front left) breaks down as she carries the coffin of one of her sons. Photo: PA
Louise James hugs son Evan after he got his medal for the Walled City Marathon mini-race last year. Photo: Margaret McLoughlin
Jodie Lee Daniels
Ruth Daniels
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Alarm bells started ringing when Francis Crawford noticed how far down the slipway the blue Audi SUV was. He turned in agitation to his wife, saying: "If they don't go back they're not going to get a grip on the ramp."

He shouted at the driver, asking if he was all right.

The man leaned out the window and frantically shouted at him to ring the coastguard.

Within the instant that it took Mr Crawford to do so, the car was already in the water. "I stood there looking and listening and hearing," he said.

"I could hear them, the children in the car as water started to come into the car and that's heartrending in itself.

"That will stay with me for a long time."

Last Sunday had been a gloriously warm and sunny day on the Inishowen peninsula.

It was the start of the relaxing Easter break, with children up to high doh at the prospect of two blissful school-free weeks stretching out before them.

Buncrana, in Co Donegal, was, as usual, packed with daytrippers from Derry.

"This is where Derry people come to get away," explained two women who - like so many others - had come from the walled city, ashen-faced, to lay flowers at the pier wall the following day.

"This'd be our first stop. This is Donegal to us," said Susan Harper, explaining that it was barely a 10- minute drive.

"When the weather is fine it's as good as going foreign," she declared.

The extended Daniels and McGrotty family, from Ballymagroarty in Derry's Outer West - one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in Northern Ireland - had been no different when they decided to wrap up the first weekend of the holidays with a trip to watch the sunset down at the pier.

Their mother, Louise James, was away on a hen party in Liverpool and her partner, Sean McGrotty - a taxi driver and devoted family man - was at home minding their three children.

Mark (12) was a quiet, well-mannered and very hardworking boy. He was a perfectionist when it came to schoolwork and had been taken under the wing of the 'big boys' in sixth form who had looked after him.

His little brother Evan (8) was born with muscular dystrophy but never let it hold him back.

On the only occasion that Louise had felt he was too ill to attend school, he had charged down the road in his pyjamas, in the wake of her and Mark, outraged that his older brother should be allowed to go to school when he was not.

He was artistic and was "truly loved by everyone".

Just four months old, little Rioghnach-Ann had been christened last January.

Sean had rounded up mother-in-law, Ruth Daniels - who lived with her daughter Jodie Lee (14) and her four sons Joshua, who plays for Derry City, Kyle, Nathan and Jonathan in Ederowen, in Galliagh - another of Derry's most severely disadvantaged areas.

Joshua described Ruth as a "perfect person" who felt joy and pride at anybody's achievements, especially those of her own family.

"Growing up with someone who had the traits she had was an absolute gift to me and anyone who knew her," he said at the funeral.

"Everything we achieve will be for her and everything I become will be because of her."

Jodie Lee was recalled by her school principal as a beautiful girl who also had an inner beauty.

"She had the world at her feet," said Marie Lyndsay of St Mary's College, who added that she had packed a "lifetime of love" into her 14 short years. Every day, she was to be seen skipping to the shops at her mother's heels. The pair were inseparable. The family would have watched, mesmerised, that Sunday evening as the RNLI conducted a helicopter exercise off Buncrana Pier on Lough Swilly.

The 27 volunteers had wrapped up just after 7pm.

Amongst them was Coxswain Mark Burnett.

He had gone just half a mile out the road on his way home when his pager pinged.

The message was terse.

'A car had gone into the water at Buncrana Pier. Adults and children in the water.'

Mark could hardly believe it possible, he told the Irish Independent afterwards.

Normally, there is time to evolve a plan on the scene to an accident, he explained.

This time, there was none and still gathering their thoughts, the volunteers sprang into action.

It took less than five minutes after the alert went up for the full team of volunteers to gather once again at the scene.

By that stage, footballer Davitt Walsh (27) had already stripped to his boxers and hit the water and recovered baby Rioghnach-Ann, after Sean McGrotty had managed to break the driver's window.

It appeared that after the SUV had hit the water, the electronics had failed.

Mr Burnett said that when their diver had got to the car under the water, 12 metres deep, all the doors were locked but he had been able to open the boot to get the bodies out.

Mr Walsh, from Kerrykeel, Co Donegal, was driving his girlfriend, Stephanie Knox, back to her home in Derry when they decided to stop in Buncrana to enjoy the beautiful spring evening.

Straight away, they saw the Audi SUV in the water, having slid off the slipway.

"Stephanie said, 'Davitt, do something', because the family were all screaming in the car," said Davitt.

"I said 'OK, I'm going.' I just stripped off and headed straight for the family."

Davitt said at that stage the car was drifting farther out. When he decided to swim to the vehicle it was "bobbing in the water" about 20m out, but when he eventually reached it, it was about 40-60m out.

"When I got to the car the engine was completely submerged and the back of the car was up in the air," he said.

"The window was half ajar. The man started breaking the window on the driver's side. I said 'everyone has to get out of the car'.

"He got out and sat on the edge of the window with his hand on the roof. He grabbed the baby and handed her to me.

"I took the baby. One of the children tried to get out as well through the back seat but he couldn't get out."

Sean McGrotty had looked at Davitt and said: "save the baby" and went back to the car.

And then the car went down. Amid the devastation of the funerals in Derry on Thursday, Jim McGrotty, Sean's brother, told mourners: "Something many of you may not know about: Our Sean couldn't swim."

Louise James told parish priest Fr Paddy O'Kane that she was broken and that little Rioghnach-Ann was her only reason to go on.

From some incredible reserve of strength, she summoned the courage to carry the coffins of her most precious loved ones.

A vigil at Buncrana pier will be held tomorrow, Easter Sunday, timed to coincide with the time the tragedy struck, taking five beautiful lives.

Irish Independent

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