Monday 23 July 2018

Eyewitness at Buncrana tragedy inquest describes harrowing scenes as car slipped from pier

“I said help was on the way,” he said. “I could hear the children squealing and crying.”

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

Andrew Phelan

A MOTORIST who arrived at the scene of the Buncrana drowning tragedy could hear children “squealing” in their car as it slipped from the pier and began to sink, an inquest has heard.

Local man Francis Crawford raised the alarm when he saw the SUV slip into the waters of Lough Swilly and although another man, Davitt Walsh was able to swim out to save a baby, five other members of one family died.

Mr Crawford said the tragedy unfolded over the course of 12 minutes from the time he raised the alarm to the time the car sank.

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

Sean McGrotty managed to hand out his baby daughter Rioghnach-Ann to Mr Walsh, who took her to safety before the Audi Q7 sank.

Inquests into the deaths opened today at Inishowen Coronor's Court today at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal.

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

Francis Crawford said in his deposition that he and his wife Kay arrived at the pier at 7.08pm in his Toyota Corolla. He parked on the slipway and saw that half way down on the left was a black people carrier. There were other people further up the pier but nobody else was on the slipway.

It was in the water, parallel to the slipway, with the driver’s side facing him.

He said to his wife “I think there is something badly wrong here” and he put down his window and shouted out “are you OK?”

“(The driver) replied ‘phone the coastguard’” from an open window, Mr Crawford recalled.

At this point, he could not make out anybody else other than the driver in the car.

Mr Crawford got out of his car and stood on the slipway and the driver kept shouting at him in a panicked voice: “Phone the coastguard, phone the coastguard.”

He dialled 999 and asked for the coastguard as the driver had asked and got a response from the Malin Head coastguard.

He spoke with “urgency and clarity” to the coastguard and expressed the seriousness of the situation, telling him there was a car in the water on the pier in Buncrana,  there was a family in the car and “there was a tragedy about to happen.”

Davitt with Rioghnach-Ann a few days after he’d rescued her
Davitt with Rioghnach-Ann a few days after he’d rescued her

After the coastguard hung up, the driver was shouting at him for help, Mr Crawford continued in his deposition.

“I said help was on the way,” he said. “I could hear the children squealing and crying.”

At this point, another car arrived and a man he now knew to be Davitt Walsh got out and said something to him about the car being in the water.

“I said to him, ‘can you swim?’ and he looked at me and said ‘I can.’”

He asked Mr Walsh could he “please, please” help and Mr Walsh took off his shoes and his clothes down to his boxer shorts. He ran to the water and his girlfriend said “watch yourself.”

“He said ‘I know, I know’,” Mr Crawford recalled.

The car was bobbing in the water yards from the slipway, slowly floating. Mr Crawford could still hear children screaming from the car, which “must have been taking on water” all the time.

He saw Mr Walsh swim over to the car and Mr Crawford was hoping the car would not go down.

He then saw Mr Walsh swimming back to the slipway and as he got close, he could see he had a baby with him.

Mr Walsh told Mr Crawford he thought there were four people in the car - two adults and two children.

He said he had a “wee fella” as well but his foot was caught on something and he had to leave the car, the inquest heard.

Mr Walsh had seemed exhausted and said “take the baby, take the baby,” to his girlfriend, who took the child to their car to warm her.

Mr Crawford hoped Mr Walsh would be able to swim back but it became apparent this would not be possible due to his exhaustion.

Mr Crawford was waiting for emergency services and could hear sirens, but then the nose of the car suddenly dipped, the back of the car came up and it sank to the bottom.

The emergency services then arrived and he saw attempts to resuscitate one person that he was told was a woman.

Mr Crawford said the lower 10 feet of the slipway was covered in green algae which was “slippy as ice.”

Questioned by legal representatives of parties involved in the inquest, Mr Crawford said the water was about four inches up the wheels of the car when he arrived.

From the time he called the coastguard to when the car sank was about 12 minutes, he said. He knew the dangers because he knew the area but “a stranger would not know,” he said.

Earlier, Coroner Dr Denis McCauley asked the media for sensitivity in reporting on the inquest.

Dr McAuley said “we have an important and solemn duty” in carrying out inquests into a “terrible tragedy that happened in March last year.”

It was important that “we do it properly and fairly,” he said. Dr McAuley asked the large press contingent to be cognisant that family members were present.

He asked the press to be sensitive to the fact that it was a terrible tragedy and “there will be sad facts told today.”

He asked for the facts to be reported in an “honest and non-sensational way.”

Dr McCauley advised the jury to “save for afterwards” reading anything about the case on social or other media.

They could only make their determination on what they hear at the inquest, he said.

The inquests are expected to take two days.

More to follow.

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