Thursday 29 September 2016

Eyewitnesses at Buncrana bring light to the darkness

Only the words of other human beings who were there can help us to fully make sense of tragedy

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Photo: North West Newspix
Photo: North West Newspix

It has become increasingly common in criminal trials to disparage eyewitness testimony as unreliable and prone to suggestion; but the real value of an observer of extraordinary events is not to remember every detail so much as to simply bear witness to what happened. If they are the only survivors, that role becomes even more urgent.

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The agony which befell Buncrana last Sunday, when five people lost their lives after their car slipped off the pier into the water, once again highlighted the importance of an eyewitness as a way of making sense of tragedy.

Had there been nobody around that day to see when the car went into the water, the deaths of five people would have been every bit as awful, but hearing from people who were there, who spoke to the people in the car before it sank, who can pass on their final words, and describe events as they spiralled out of control, made it seem all the more vivid and terrible.

The terrorist attacks in Brussels had photographs, videos, CCTV footage. Buncrana had only the words of those who were there that evening, not least 28-year-old Davitt Walsh, hailed a hero after rescuing four month old baby Rioghnach-Ann from the car moments before it sank, killing her father Sean McGrotty, his two sons, 12-year-old Mark and eight-year-old Evan, their grandmother, 57-year-old Ruth Daniels, and her 15-year-old daughter Jodie Lee Daniels.

Had Walsh arrived on the pier even minutes later, it would not only have resulted in the death of the family's youngest child as well, it would have been an event whose final seconds out on Lough Swilly had no witnesses at all, and no one to speak about it afterwards.

Priests and reporters struggled to find the words to express the horror of it all, repeating a small number of adjectives.

Indeed they were moved to wonder if any words could suffice at all. Davitt Walsh didn't need to fumble for the right words. He only had to say what happened.

There were other witnesses too. Local man Francis Crawford was with his wife on the pier in Buncrana that evening, watching the sun set, and was the first to call 999 after spotting the car in trouble.

"I screwed down my window," Crawford recalled, "and I shouted to the driver, he had his window down, and I said 'are you alright?' and he shouted 'phone the Coastguard, phone the Coastguard'." Visibly upset, he described how the shouting continued: "And I said 'I've phoned them, everyone is on their way'… this man was still shouting at me when the car went down."

Little in the thousands of words written afterwards could match the nightmarish simplicity of that first hand account. Others described hearing the same shouts and screams from the car, and the rescuers, though too late, had their own tales to tell of their efforts to retrieve and try desperately to revive the victims.

It brought back to mind the words of CNN reporter Jeanne Meserve, when describing the difference between hearing about Hurricane Katrina and seeing the devastation with her own eyes. "When you stand in the dark, and you hear people yelling for help and no one can get to them, it's a totally different experience."

Without question it was Davitt Walsh's testimony which had the greatest impact on those who heard it, because he was the one who came closest to those poor people in their last moments, after taking off his clothes and swimming out in the freezing water to do what he could.

He told his story repeatedly in the past week. "The water started coming in and (Sean) just looked at me and said 'save my baby'." It was only because of Walsh that we knew of the father's own bravery as he returned to the car to try and save the rest of his family. Without his testimony, that part of the story would have been lost to time as well.

Two days later, in a much more populous place, the attacks took place on Brussels.

In what has become a familiar feature of the real time reporting of terrorist atrocities, we saw survivors of the subway station bombing making their way down dark tunnels to safety, and crowds running away from the airport, just as, in Paris in November, we were able to see the woman clinging onto the window as she tried to climb out of the Bataclan theatre.

We are transfixed by these real life dramas, but ironically the pictures can have a distancing effect.

Whatever appears on our screens inevitably becomes absorbed into TV's round the clock cycle of "infotainment". We process the images and move on to the next event far too quickly.

In a world dominated by ubiquitous news coverage, there are now even websites dedicated to footage of people dying, in accidents, in murders captured on CCTV cameras inside shops, in wars, in natural disasters. The ante is constantly raised as shock becomes harder to provoke.

Sometimes it is still words that have the greatest power to break down the emotional barriers. No grainy mobile phone footage of the aftermath of the Bataclan massacre could compare to the quietly- spoken accounts of people who escaped the carnage to describe what they saw.

To have been able to see what happened in Buncrana would have been unbearable, almost obscene, but Davitt Walsh's words transcended a mere catalogue of an unfolding tragedy into something much more human and sad.

War reporter Janine di Giovanni has spoken of an "obligation to bear witness". It's not merely about recounting events so that others who are not there can learn and understand what happened, but about assuming the responsibility of speaking for the dead. Davitt Walsh clearly felt that same sense of responsibility.

He assumed it in direct ways, wrongly blaming himself for not being able to save more of the victims; but he also took it on in a larger symbolic way, knowing that he was the only one who could pass on a record of the event, even when doing so was clearly as punishing to him mentally as his efforts to save the family was to him physically. Day after day, he made himself face it, patiently answering the same questions.

In one of his letters in the Bible, John, the disciple of Jesus, talks of "that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched."

That was the tangible quality which Davitt Walsh brought to last Sunday's events. There is always a danger that the sort of collective grief that we all felt last week can slip over into voyeurism anyway, no matter how sensitively a tragedy is handled; but at least it makes us think about all the lonely deaths that occur every day, with no one around to attest to a person's final experiences, and which consequently vanish into history without trace.

We remember what we should never have forgotten - the awful sorrow and vulnerability of being human.

Sunday Independent

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