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Saturday 16 December 2017

Buncrana tragedy: ‘I’ve lost everyone except little Rioghnach-Ann’ - grief stricken mum

Mum's partner, two children, mother and sister drown as bravery of passerby is revealed

Sean McGrotty and his partner Louise James, with children Mark (12), Evan (8), and baby Rioghnach-Ann
Sean McGrotty and his partner Louise James, with children Mark (12), Evan (8), and baby Rioghnach-Ann
Click to view full size graphic
Victim Jodie-Lee Daniels

Greg Harkin and Cathal McMahon

A grief-stricken mother who lost her two sons, partner, mother and sister in the Buncrana tragedy has said her baby daughter is her reason to go on.

Louise James was away with at a hen party when five members of her family died when their car slid into the ice cold waters of Lough Swilly from a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal, on Sunday night.

An eye-witness has described hearing the last desperate screams of Sean McGrotty (46), his two sons Mark (12) and Evan, eight, and the boys' grandmother Ruth Daniels (59).

Mrs Daniels' daughter - 14-year-old Jodie-Lee - also died when the family's Audi jeep slid on algae on the slipway and went crashing into the sea.

Bystander Davitt Walsh, who had gone to the pier with his girlfriend for a walk, has been hailed a hero after he swam out and rescued Ms James' and Mr McGrotty's four-month-old daughter Rioghnach-Ann.

Read more: Buncrana tragedy: Couple and three children die after jeep plunged into sea off pier

Parish priest Father Paddy O'Kane told the Irish Independent the family is utterly devastated by the loss of three generations.

"Words cannot describe what they are going through," he said.

"They are inconsolable. Louise said to me, 'I have lost everyone, except little Rioghnach-Ann'. She said 'Rioghnach-Ann is my reason to go on'."

Mr Walsh revealed how he jumped in to the water and a desperate Mr McGrotty passed the baby out of a smashed window and said "save my baby".

"I took the baby, I held it above my head and I swam back out to shore," he said.

He believes the father would have been able to save himself, but stayed in the car to try and free the rest of the family.

"I think he could have saved himself but he wanted to stay with his family and help them," said Mr Walsh.

"I got a grip of another child. I think it was the older boy, about 12 years old, but he just got pulled away from me. I don't know how.

"I probably couldn't have saved him and the baby and get back again. I don't know for sure."

Read more: Devastated brother says tragic father 'idolised' his family

The family - all from the Derry area - had gone out for dinner and a drive to Buncrana on a bright sunny March Sunday.

Ms James was returning home from a weekend break in England when the tragedy happened.

Mr McGrotty's brother Jim led tributes to the family members who died, and to Mr Walsh for rescuing his baby niece.

"I was sitting at home when news of the tragedy started to emerge last night but didn't realise then that it was my own family members who had died," said Jim.

"On behalf of the family we want to thank that brave man who swam into the sea and who saved the life of Louise's baby, who is only four months old.

"Words cannot express the enormity of the tragedy which has befallen our family.

"We are all numbed by this tragedy which has visited us. If there is anything good which has come out of it is the fact that baby Rioghnach-Ann has been saved."

Read more: 'It was harrowing. To have a family, so many people, gone like that over a very simple thing'

Mark was a first year student at St Joseph's Secondary School in Derry. His younger brother Evan, who had muscular dystrophy, was a pupil at St Eithne's Primary School.

It is understood the family had celebrated eight-year-old Evan's first confession just a fortnight ago and were preparing for his first communion in May.

The boys were described as "two characters" by their uncle Tommy McGrotty.

Ruth Daniels, a mother-of-six, is survived by her daughter Louise and four sons, Nathan, Johnathan, Kyle and Joshua, a Derry City footballer.

Ms Daniels' daughter Jodie-Lee was described as a beautiful "lovely wee girl" who "had her whole life in front of her."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Daniels and McGrotty families in this most painful time," said Derry City chairman Philip O'Doherty.

"Our thoughts are especially with our colleague and team- mate Josh Daniels who has been with this club since he was a boy.

"We are conscious of the depth of his loss. Inadequate as it is, everyone at the club wants to assure him that they will be with him in the coming days and, more importantly, in the weeks and months that lie ahead'.

The family funeral will take place in Ballymagroarty on Thursday.

The people of Buncrana and Derry were left devastated by the tragedy.

In the seaside town, pensioner Francis Crawford choked back tears as he told of the last moments of the tragic family.

"I had just gone out to the slipway for the evening and I said to my wife that the car looked to be in difficulty," said Mr Crawford.

"I shouted over to the man driving the car and he shouted back 'Get the Coast Guard, get the Coast Guard'. I rang them straight away. It was 12 minutes past 7 and it was still daylight.

Read more: Save my baby, save my baby' - Hero dad's last words before going back into car to try and rescue family Save my baby, save my baby' - Hero dad's last words before going back into car to try and rescue family

"I could hear screams from the car, the screams of children from the car.

"There was nothing anyone could do and there was a young lad there, Davitt Walsh, and he stripped down to his underwear and I asked if he could swim if he could go in and he did. It was incredibly brave.

"He swam out to the car and came back with a baby girl. She was very small.

"The car went under and the emergency services were here very fast but there was nothing more that they could do.

"Within the hour those poor people were in body bags on the pier - that man I was talking to, those children who were screaming."

The slipway beside the pier is used for the Buncrana-Rathmullan ferry which operates during the summer months.

The pensioner said he had been unable to sleep after witnessing the tragedy, shaken by the horror of the deaths.

"I'll never forget the screams of those children. It's all so surreal."

Donegal county councillor Jack Murray witnessed the recovery operation by the emergency services which included the Coast Guard 118 Helicopter.

"There was just silence as people watched on," he said.

"The town, the peninsula and communities in Derry and Donegal have been left completely stunned by this tragedy.

"The town feels like it did after the Inishowen car crash tragedy five years ago when eight people died.

"It is just shocking and everyone here is just thinking about the family and about those children losing their lives like this."

Among those who visited the scene on Sunday were some of the relatives of the eight men who died in a crash a few kilometres away in July 2010.

President Michael D Higgins offered his sympathy to the extended McGrotty family on the terrible loss of life in Buncrana.

"My heart goes out to the family and loved ones of Sean McGrotty, Mark McGrotty (12), Evan McGrotty (8), Ruth Daniels and Jodie-Lee Daniels (14)," he said.

"Sabina and I wish to express our deepest sympathies to the family and their communities."

Irish Independent

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