Monday 19 August 2019

Buncrana inquest: First responder gives evidence about recovery operation after car slipped off pier

The pier at Buncrana where five members of the same family lost their lives
The pier at Buncrana where five members of the same family lost their lives
Andrew Phelan

Andrew Phelan

ONE of the first responders to the Buncrana pier tragedy was unable to open the doors of the jeep after it sank with five members of one family inside.

An inquest into the drownings heard today that an RNLI crew member pulled at the door handles after the car was submerged and while they moved freely, the locking mechanism was not engaging.

John O’Raw had dived to the Audi Q7 less than an hour after it had rolled into the waters of Lough Swilly, claiming the lives of five people.

The RNLI volunteer was giving evidence on the second day of the inquest at Inishowen Coroner’s Court in Buncrana, Co Donegal.

A vehicle inspector also gave evidence that the jeep was in "serviceable condition" and within legal limits before the accident. He also said he had been able to open all four doors during his inspection the next day.

Sean McGrotty (49), his sons Evan (8) and Mark (12); the boys’ grandmother Ruth Daniels (57) and her daughter Jodie Lee Tracey (14) all lost their lives in the tragedy on March 20, 2016.

They had been out driving in Buncrana when Mr McGrotty parked on a slipway on the pier before sunset.

The end of the pier was covered in thick algae and the Audi Q7 began to slide into the lake.

A local man, Davitt Walsh swam out to the sinking jeep and Mr McGrotty managed to hand out his baby daughter Rioghnach-Ann to him. Mr Walsh got her to safety before the jeep sank.

Mr McGrotty’s partner Louise James had just flown back from a trip to Liverpool when she was phoned with the news that he had died along with their sons, her mother and her sister.

Mr McGrotty was found in a post mortem examination to have been three times the drink driving limit, but a pathologist could not say what level of impairment he might have had.

Today, Mr O’Raw said he was at home when his bleeper went off at 7.13pm. He went to the pier and met RNLI crew members who were performing CPR on a woman on the slipway. He was told there was a submerged car in the water so he returned home and got his snorkelling equipment.

He came back to the pier and entered the water along with two crew at 7.55pm. The tailgate of the car was just visible, he said. He directed the crew to the roof of the car, where they could stand. The depth of the water was three metres at that location and the car was on the right hand side of the slipway with the front facing north.

He dived on the passenger side and was unable to open the doors there. He said the handle was moving freely but the locking mechanism was not engaging.

The driver’s door window was half-open and was broken inwards in a “bowl” shape. He could clearly see there was nobody in the two front seats and he was unable to reach in to the door handle.

Visibility was an arm’s length and he could not see into the car and the only way to get in was through the open tailgate.

Mr O’Raw told Coroner Denis McCauley the RNLI team extracted a body from the water within 7 minutes. The car had been submerged for 40 minutes when he arrived.

Questioned by barrister, Keith O’Grady, for Sean McGrotty’s motor insurers, Allianz, he confirmed that he personally knew of three other “incidents” at Buncrana pier. An earlier witness, Francis Crawford had given evidence that he knew about 10 previous incidents but Mr O’Raw was not aware of this number.

He agreed that the tailgate was open to the extent that the vehicle could be entered.

Mr O’Raw said a passenger side window was cracked after he dived because other crew had to put a rope through to recover the jeep, although he did not fully see that because it was dark.

He agreed that in the normal course of events, it was more difficult to open a door under water than over. However, he said once one door was opened, the pressure was the same inside and out, so there would have been no pressure differential.

Mr O’Grady said it seemed the broken window had been “flapping over” the driver’s side and it would have been dangerous for Mr O’Raw to get in. Mr O’Raw replied that the space was too small to be safe anyway.

PSV inspector, Garda Damien Mulkearns then gave evidence that the vehicle was in a serviceable condition pre-accident.

Gda Mulkearns said the steering, suspension and braking systems were in serviceable condition, both front tyres were "fair" and the rear tyres were in a good condition.

All were serviceable and above legal limits, he said. Overall, the car was in a serviceable condition pre-accident, he concluded.

Gda Mulkearns told the coroner in relation to electrical systems that once an electrical current is submerged in water, "it becomes unpredictable."

The inquest, which was continuing at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana this afternoon, is being held before a jury.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News