Sunday 22 September 2019

Buncrana victims 'should have been able to open the doors after electrics failed' - Audi tells inquest

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 five people who drowned in the Buncrana pier tragedy should all have been able to manually open the jeep doors after the electrical locking mechanism failed as it sank, an inquest heard.

The vehicle manufacturers Audi also confirmed that the windows should have been able to open for several minutes as the waters rose.

A company representative was giving evidence at the inquest this afternoon into the deaths of five members of one family who drowned when their jeep rolled off a slipway into the waters of Lough Swilly.

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, Gerard Boyle of Audi Ireland told the inquest electrical components were not supposed to be in water. The firm had been testing cars underwater for the last 10 years, but these tests post-dated the manufacture of Mr McGrotty’s car in 2006.

The tests involved lowering cars into the water by crane with diver inside, who tested how the doors opened and closed.

He did not know what specific differences there were between Mr McGrotty’s car and the new “facelift” model from 2011.

He said the control unit for the locking system was in the boot of the car and it would shut down in water. The locks would stay in whatever position they were in at the time of water ingress, he said.

Mr Boyle thought from RNLI diver John O’Raw’s description of not being able to open the doors from the outside that they had been in the locked position when the jeep was submerged.

The internal handle would open the door from the inside when pulled, he said and the absence or presence of electrics should not change that.

The inquest heard Mr O’Raw had not been able to access this handle from outside. Mr Boyle’s opinion was that Garda Damien Mulkearns, the vehicle inspector was able to open the doors after because someone had got the driver’s door handle and opened it as the car was recovered.

Mr Boyle said the jeep was a four wheel drive but if there was no friction between the tyres and a slippery surface such as algae, the brakes would not work.

He agreed with barrister Keith O’Grady, for Sean McGrotty’s motor insurers Allianz, that the result would be the vehicle moving uncontrollably.

Aspects of a report by Audi referred to the later testing of vehicles and aspects referred to Mr McGrotty’s vehicle, Mr Boyle said.

Audi’s report stated that electric windows should work for several minutes even if water reached the window rim. Mr Boyle said he thought the report referred to the later tested vehicles on this point.

He could not say how Mr McGrotty’s jeep’s windows would have operated after it entered the water.

Mr O’Grady said he took it from his evidence that if Mr McGrotty had reached for the handle and pulled it that it would have opened the driver’s door.

“The door in the car should work like that,” Mr Boyle said.

Mr O’Grady asked if any of the five occupants had reached for the handles if the doors would have opened and if that was Audi’s position today.

“Yes,” Mr Boyle said. “I understand that is how the locking system works… and that is how it should work.”

He agreed there was no evidence that any of the windows opened or could have opened before the car was submerged.

“We have uncontroverted evidence of people trying to get out of the vehicle and of the way in which the driver tried to get himself and his passengers out of the vehicle, by breaking the window” Mr O’Grady.

He asked if it was Audi’s position that “all that had to be done here was a button pressed” and the windows would have opened.

“I can’t say if it was done or tried to be done but that is how the vehicle works,” Mr Boyle said.

The inquest heard Mr McGrotty would have used "considerable force" to break the driver's door window with his elbow.

Earlier, Garda Seamus Callaghan said he was one of the first on the scene and it became apparent that a vehicle had slipped off the slipway, containing four or five people who were now missing.

The water was searched and RNLI crew took Ruth Daniels from the water and performed CPR on her at the water’s edge.

The slipway had thick algae on it and Garda Callaghan could not stand up without almost slipping into the water. He said he had to get on his knees to get a grip while assisting with the resuscitation attempts.

The area was sealed off the protect the dignity of the five as CPR was performed on them to no avail.

They were all pronounced dead at the scene and a blanket was placed over them.

A local priest arrived and Garda Callaghan brought him around to each of the deceased to say prayers and bless them.

The vehicle was towed onto the slipway and a number of items were found. There was a baby bag with a purse and cards in the name of Ruth Daniels.

He found Calpol medicine in the bag with baby Rioghnach Ann McGrotty’s name on it. The bag had empty milk bottles and “clearly the baby had been very well looked after,” Garda Callaghan said.

The inquest continues at Inishowen Coroner's Court.

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