Watch: 'He could hardly hold the baby, he was that exhausted' - Witness describes 'harrowing' scene at Buncrana pier tragedy
Published 21/03/2016 | 08:33
THE man who called emergency services to the scene of the Buncrana drowning tragedy has described the horror as a father shouted for help from his sinking car.
Two adults and three children died when their SUV slipped into Lough Swilly in Co Donegal on Sunday night.
A woman in her 50s, one of her daughters, the partner of another daughter and two children are believed to have died in the incident.
A four-month old girl was rescued by a brave local man who jumped into the ice-cold water and swam to the vehicle.
It is believed that the victims have links with Derry, and the gardai are in contact with the PSNI.
Pensioner Francis Crawford this morning told Independent.ie how the tragedy unfolded before his eyes.
"The whole thing was heart rendering." he said. "You could hear goings on in the car but it was just the driver shouting to me. The wee baby was rescued at that time.
"It was all over then. You hoped that when the rescue services came there would be a pocket of air in the car. I could see that some people had got out of the car, I could see them in the water."
He explained that he had travelled down with his wife shortly before 7.30pm on Sunday.
- Read more: Buncrana tragedy: Baby rescued after she was 'thrown from car' as family die in pier tragedy
He said that he turned on the ramp that the car was on but didn't go near the bottom because he knew it to be "slippery as ice, because of the green algae".
The slipway is used for the Buncrana to Rathmullan ferry service which operates during the summer.
"It would appear to me that the car slipped off," Mr Crawford said. "The man... was from Derry and may not have been familiar with the ramp and sort of slipped in to the water."
It is understood that six people - two adults and four children, including the baby - were in the Audi Q7 vehicle, when it went into the water.
The RNLI said the vehicle sank in about 3.5 metres of water.
"The car started to bobble about," Mr Crawford said.
"It happened not long before I came. I said to my wife, 'if those people don't get back in they are not going to get a grip on the concrete'.
"I went down and asked 'are you alright'? He said 'phone the coastguard, phone the coastguard'
"I dialled 999 and the coastguard and told them that there is a terrible situation developing in Buncrana. I told them: 'There is a car and a family in the water and he was going to sink'. "
Mr Crawford explained that the emergency services arrived in minutes but it was too late.
"Everybody was there in a very short time but there was nothing they could do at that stage."
The pensioner said that there was a local man on the pier from a neighbouring parish.
"I asked him if he could go in. He stripped off to his underwear and headed out in very cold conditions, the car was well out at this stage.
"He came back in, he was totally exhausted. I don't think he could have gone another five yards in the water. He had the wee baby with him.
"He was shouting 'take the baby, take the baby'. He could hardly hold the baby, he was that exhausted.
"At that stage the car was still bobbling. I was hoping against hope, knowing everybody was coming, that this would stay afloat. All of a sudden the lot just went under the water."
Mr Crawford explained that there were very few on the pier at the time. He said that it took a while for it to register with people just what was unfolding.
"The ambulance service came and took them in and gave them mouth to mouth but there was no hope, nothing was going to happen at that stage. Too long had passed.
"The car was under too long for anything positive to happen."
- Read more: 'A family somewhere is about to get the most awful news' - Locals in shock after Buncrana pier tragedy
Speaking earlier to BBC Radio Foyle, Mr Crawford said: "I was hoping against hope, hoping against hope that the services were on their way. I shouted to the man in the car that help was coming and I think the baby being gone gave them hope.
"I was hoping against hope the car would stay and I was watching the car and it started to dip and all of a sudden it just went down, the whole car and everything stopped.
"It was harrowing, heartrending, I don't want to go into detail...," he said as he became emotional.
The Coast Guard 118 Rescue helicopter, RNLI lifeboat crews from Lough Swilly and Greencastle, ambulance crews and gardaí all took part in the search and rescue operation.
But by 9pm it was clear that there were no other survivors.
"I'm feeling hopeless and helpless, there was nothing I could do. That man was shouting at me and I was saying 'they're on their way, they're on their way, everybody's coming'.
"The car just went down and that was it, all over.
"I couldn't have imagined it.
"I felt so hopeless, watching it unfolding it in front of your eyes.
"It was surreal, we go down here all the time, we go down to the pier, there's always people coming and going."
Gardaí sealed off the scene and a full investigation into the tragedy will begin today.
Gardai are treating the incident as a tragic accident.
The baby, believed to be about four months old, was taken to nearby Letterkenny Hospital where is currently in a stable condition.
The bodies of the two adults and the three children were taken to Letterkenny hospital, where post mortems are expected to be carried out today.
The identities of the victims have not yet been confirmed.
More to follow