Saturday 24 August 2019

Buncrana inquest: Louise James tells of heartbreaking moment she learned of tragedy

Louise James was waiting for her flight home minutes after speaking to her sister when she got a feeling that "something wasn't right".

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

The woman who lost five family members in the Buncrana pier tragedy last spoke to her sister on the phone 17 minutes before the car went into the water.

Sean McGrotty’s partner Louise James told how she was on a trip to Liverpool when the tragedy happened in Co Donegal, claiming the lives of her partner, two sons, mother and sister.

Ms James was waiting for her flight home minutes after speaking to her sister when she got a feeling that "something wasn't right."

After her flight landed in Belfast, she got a call from a brother telling her "they were all gone."

The victims of the Buncrana tragedy: (clockwise from top left) Louise’s partner Sean McGrotty, their two sons Mark and Evan, sister Jodie Lee Daniels and her mother Ruth
The victims of the Buncrana tragedy: (clockwise from top left) Louise’s partner Sean McGrotty, their two sons Mark and Evan, sister Jodie Lee Daniels and her mother Ruth

Ms James' deposition was being read out at inquests into the deaths of her partner Sean McGrotty (49), their sons Evan (8) and Mark (12); her mother Ruth Daniels (57) and sister Jodie Lee Tracey (14).

All five lost their lives when their SUV rolled into the waters of Lough Swilly on March 20, 2016.

A local man, Davitt Walsh, swam out to the sinking jeep and rescued Ms James' baby daughter Rioghnach Ann.

The hearing today heard from a number of witnesses at the scene, from Ms James and from pathologist Catriona Dillon.

The slipway at Buncrana Pier. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
The slipway at Buncrana Pier. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

In evidence today it was heard that Mr McGrotty was three times the drink driving alcohol limit at the time, but any level of impairment could not be determined.

In her deposition, Ms James said she went on a hen weekend to Liverpool and the last time she saw her family was at 4pm when Mr McGrotty dropped her to her friend’s house.

She was in constant phone contact with her family after she left. She said she rang Jodie at 6.55pm and her sister told her they were at the shore in Buncrana.

Ms James said she was in the airport in Liverpool waiting for a flight at around 7.25pm, when she said “I got a feeling that something wasn’t right. I don’t know why”

She tried to contact Sean and Jodie but the phones did not connect. She called her brother Nathan to ask “had Mammy come home” and learned she had not.

She then contacted her brother Joshua and he asked her if she had been on social media.

When she said she had not, he told her a car had gone off the pier at Buncrana. Ms James told her brother that the family were in Buncrana and “I said I was getting a a bad feeling about this,” her deposition continued.

Joshua told her it was a car that had gone in and not a jeep and as far as he knew from social media “it was two men.”

He told her he would call her back and she asked him to hurry up as she was about to board her flight and would have to turn her phone off.

There was no more contact until the flight landed in Belfast and she got a call.

“It was Joshua, he said Sean’s body was the first to be identified...that they were all gone,” she said.

Sean McGrotty and Louise James, holding baby Rioghnach-Ann, with sons Evan (8) and Mark (12)
Sean McGrotty and Louise James, holding baby Rioghnach-Ann, with sons Evan (8) and Mark (12)

Joshua told her the baby Rioghnagh Ann was OK.

Ms James said she went to Letterkenny Hospital and spent some time with her daughter before identifying her family’s bodies in the morgue.

Accompanied by Garda Sergeant Mark Traynor, she first identified Sean McGrotty, then “my Mammy, Ruth.”

They came out and then went back in and she identified her sister Jodie and her sons Mark and Evan, she said.

Today's hearing also heard a deposition from Davitt Walsh who said it was a beautiful evening and he had been driving around with his then-girlfriend Stephanie Knox.

They drove to the pier and Ms Knox took a selfie. He said he made a point to stay away from the algae that covered eight feet of the slipway because he knew “how slippy that stuff is.”

As they left and drove past the slipway, he noticed a car in the water and Ms Knox told him: “Davitt, go down quick.”

He parked half way down and saw the black seven-seater was 20 metres from the end of slipway, bobbing in the water.

Local man Francis Crawford, who raised raised the alarm, and his wife were there and Mr Walsh got out and heard “screaming and shouting coming from the car in the water.”

Mr Crawford came to him and shouted “call the coastguard” so Mr Walsh gave his phone to Ms Knox, who said: “go do something, Davitt.”

He then took off his clothes and ran into the water and swam to the car. He saw the driver using his elbow to smash the window, which was then half-open.

“I then shouted, ‘you need to get everybody out of the the car’”, Mr Walsh said.

He circled outside the window for a few seconds, then the father passed him out the baby.

An effort to pull a boy out of the car was hampered when it appeared he became stuck on something and Mr Walsh had to let go when water began to rush into the car.

“The father looked back at me and said “save the baby… save my baby’,” Mr Walsh said.

He swam a backstroke back to the slipway, holding the baby with his left hand. He gave the baby to Ms Knox and “collapsed” on the algae on the slipway.

He could hardly breathe and someone pulled him up. He said he was freezing cold and went to the car where the baby was.

The heat was on full blast and he sat in and tried to get warm, then was treated by ambulance crew for cuts to his feet.

Questioned by Dr McCauley, he told the coroner he saw the driver “looking around for help but there was no help.”

He told how he grabbed the arm of the boy who was trying to escape, but the car went down.

He was struggling and feared he would be sucked into the water.

“I had to let go,” he said.

Barrister Paul Gallagher, representing Louise James, said everyone wanted to acknowledge Mr Walsh’s “remarkable” bravery in saving the baby.

Solicitor Michael Staines, for Donegal County Council said Mr Walsh had shown “extreme bravery”

Kay Crawford, another eyewitness said she was with her husband Francis at the scene. She said she saw Mr Walsh swim out to it as it bobbed in the water. When he returned with the baby he was exhausted and she did not think he could have swum further.

She said she saw the jeep go down.

It happened “seconds before the gardai arrived,” she said.

In questioning, she told the inquest the algae was “very, very slippy.” She saw tyre marks on the algae but did not know who made the tyre marks.

She said a gate had been open on the way to the slipway and there was a sign advising people not to swim within 15 metres of the slipway.

Barrister Keith O’Grady for Allianz, Sean McGrotty’s insurers, said since the tragedy, the gate was permanently locked and there were signs warning people about it.

Garda Sergeant Mark Traynor said there should have been three lifebuoys at the pier but there was only one on the day.

Pathologist Catriona Dillon gave evidence of carrying out a post mortem examination on Mr McGrotty. She concluded that death was due to drowning and there was a blood alcohol level of 159mg, or 22mg in a urine sample.

Coroner Dr Denis McCauley said the current legal limit was 50mg in blood.

Michael Staines solicitor, for Donegal County Council said while questioning Dr Dillon that this level was “the highest level of alcohol” under the Road Traffic Act - meaning that levels after that would incur the same penalties if someone was found to be above that level.

The inquest heard the level “may indicate a level of intoxication.”

Dr Dillon said she could not say what the level of impairment might be as there were so many factors at play, she did not know if “he was a habitual drinker” and “each person is different.”

The inquest continues.

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