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Thursday 22 February 2018

A golden day on Swilly, but as the sun set a chilling nightmare began to unfold

After weeks of rain it was a wonderful spring day as hundreds of us headed to the seaside - but then fate dealt its cruel blow

A father and daughter look out across Lough Swilly in Co Donegal from the spot on the pier where the five family members drowned Photo:
A father and daughter look out across Lough Swilly in Co Donegal from the spot on the pier where the five family members drowned Photo:
Unimaginable grief: Louise James with partner Sean McGrotty, sons Mark and Evan and baby Rioghnach-Ann who was saved Photo: Family Handout/PA Wire

Kathy Donaghy

As the sun set on a beautiful spring evening, a family car pulled up at the pier in Buncrana in Co Donegal to bear witness to the last light of the day.

The occupants; a doting father with his three children, his partner's mother and her young daughter. As they sat and chatted and took in the beauty of Lough Swilly before the night closed in, they spoke to the one family member who wasn't there; the mother of the three children.

"Mammy, I miss you so much. I am going to give you the biggest, tightest hug you ever got when I see you again," eight-year-old Evan McGrotty told his mum Louise James as he sat in the family Audi parked at the pier. These were the last words he ever spoke to her. Within minutes of the phone call, the family car slid off the pier and into the Swilly with the loss of five lives. Only through an act of heroism was Evan's four-month-old baby sister Rioghnach-Ann saved.

The unspeakable tragedy that unfolded in Buncrana last Sunday evening is hard to comprehend. The complete randomness of the event only serves to heighten its enormity. The innocence of a family doing what so many of us do - sitting in a car enjoying the remains of the day - only adds to the horror of it.

In a part of the country that has borne witness to savage tragedy, these events have left people in Inishowen and Derry numb with shock and sadness. How could a glorious Sunday end in one of the saddest days this part of the country has ever seen?

It had started out as a golden spring day. After weeks of rain, the Inishowen Peninsula at the extreme north of the island was bathed in sunshine. Hundreds of us took to the roads to head for the seaside, eager to make the most of the glorious weather. After what had felt like a very long winter, most of us wanted to get out and about. My own family, like countless others, headed off in the direction of the seaside ending up at Dunree Fort, just outside Buncrana.

Although separated by a border, the lives of Derry people and Inishowen people are inextricably linked either through family or jobs or friends. Lying at the northern tip of the country, Inishowen has in many ways always been closer to its city neighbour Derry than to the rest of Donegal. And as Buncrana - Inishowen's biggest town - is only a 15-minute drive away from Derry City, it's natural for it to be the focal point for city day-trippers.

On the road out of Derry, you pass through the villages of Bridgend, Burnfoot and Fahan before turning a corner where the majestic beach at Lisfannon and in the distance Buncrana lies before you.

No matter how many times you see it, Lough Swilly always looks different, depending on the light, but always beautiful. On Sundays - even in bad weather - the beach is full of life; dog walkers and families with children all take to it enjoying this part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

The town of Buncrana itself is beautifully situated with dramatic views across the Lough. It has seen its fortunes rise and fall in recent years with the recession and emigration hitting hard. But it has fought its way through and on a sunny day it offers a beautiful slice of Donegal life and a perfect place to bring your children on a day out.

It's also a tight-knit community where people still say hello to one another in the street whether you know one another or not.

Watching the sun go down on Lough Swilly is a sight to behold. The pier is the perfect place to do it. It brings the romance of Inishowen to life and makes you feel lucky to witness its majesty.

And so Buncrana was the perfect choice as a day-trip for Sean McGrotty, his two sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), and four-month-old baby daughter Rioghnach-Ann. His partner's mother Ruth Daniels and her teenage daughter Jodie-Lee Daniels (14) accompanied them on the day out to entertain the youngsters, as Sean's partner Louise was away for the weekend.

The details of the last minutes of life for the family members in the car are difficult to imagine. Every mother I have spoken to cannot get these events out of their heads. Nobody is talking of anything else and yet we shy away from the full horror of it and can only hold our own families close.

What we know about the events of the day are that Sean McGrotty and his family headed to Buncrana. On the Sunday afternoon in the most pleasant conditions, the Lough Swilly Lifeboat went to sea to practise a series of exercises.

The Coastguard Helicopter from Sligo had arrived and together they had practised some winches. At around 6.45pm that evening, the crews of the two lifeboats headed for home delighted with a good day's work in such great conditions. The water was beautifully calm.

As he took in the evening air down at Buncrana pier, local man Francis Crawford saw that Sean McGrotty's car was in a precarious position on the slipway at the pier. He shouted to see if the occupants of the car were OK and was asked to phone the coastguard.

At 7.13pm the lifeboat's crews' pagers went off. This time it was not an exercise and nothing could have prepared the volunteers for what they were about to witness.

Former Finn Harps ­footballer, 28-year-old Davitt Walsh had also been out for a walk and an ice-cream with his girlfriend ­Stephanie Knox. Francis Crawford shouted to him to ask if he could swim. Walsh stripped to his underwear and plunged into the bitterly cold water. ­Reaching the car, Sean McGrotty handed him his baby girl and pleaded with him to save her.

Walsh, who has been hailed a hero, has said everything happened so quickly there was nothing more he could do.

He has told how he heard the others screaming inside the car and how he will never forget them. He made it ashore safely with baby Rioghnach-Ann, completely exhausted and with cuts to his feet.

As members of the RNLI reassembled and went to the rescue, emergency services personnel from the fire brigade to the gardai arrived on the scene.

Despite huge efforts on the parts of everybody at the pier, the day had ended in tragedy and only baby Rioghnach-Ann had survived.

As darkness fell and all five were pronounced dead, news of the awfulness that had visited Buncrana began to filter out. All over Inishowen and Derry, people headed back home after days at the beach. The evening was chilly and full of stars overhead.

The news had to be broken to Louise James that she had lost her partner, her two sons, her mother and her little sister.

There is little consolation for a mother who has lost so much and yet in the midst of her grief Louise found the words to pay tribute to the emergency services, to Francis Crawford who had reassured her partner Sean that help was on its way, and to Davitt Walsh who had risked his own life and safety to bring Rioghnach-Ann back to her.

For Louise the loss is incalculable, the pain unbearable. Those of us who love this place, the mothers, fathers and grandparents who bring their children to watch the sun set over the Lough, can only utter our prayers for those lost in this unfathomable tragedy.

Sunday Independent

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