Tuesday 13 November 2018

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

The scene at Buncrana Pier where five people lost their lives on Sunday evening
The scene at Buncrana Pier where five people lost their lives on Sunday evening
Francis Crawford, who witnessed the tragedy unfold. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

Nicola Anderson in Buncrana

'It was harrowing. It was harrowing to see the bodies laid out on the ground. It was hard to see the gardaí crying and they with young children of their own. To see the five hearses pulling up there to take away the bodies."

Mark Barnett, brave coxswain with the RNLI, stood at the pier in Buncrana and tried to force down his own tears as he recalled the traumatic horror of what had happened here less than 24 hours earlier.

At one point, ambulance workers were performing CPR simultaneously on four of the bodies taken from the cold, grey waters of Lough Swilly on the quayside.

Someone had to race to the local Supervalu to get another defibrillator because they simply didn't have enough equipment.

"How could they have had?" Mark asked simply.

Nobody could have ever prepared for such a thing. No training could ever suffice.

It had been a beautiful, sunny day amid the majestically jutting and swooping coastline of the Inishowen peninsula.

The RNLI had been taking part in a helicopter exercise on Lough Swilly and the volunteers had just wound up a tough but satisfactory day's work.

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

Mark Barnett had hopped into his car for the short journey home but had only gone out the road when his pager pinged.

The message was terse. A car had gone off the pier in Buncrana, it said. Children and adults in the water.

"It must've happened seconds after I left," said Mark, explaining that in normal circumstances, volunteers would have been able to devise a plan en route to an accident.

This time, there was no time to plan for what they would have to deal with.

He struggled to describe what they had seen, the light behind Lough Swilly fading, as eyewitnesses on the pier screamed that there were people still in the car that had disappeared under the surface, 12 metres deep.

The baby, little Rioghnach-Ann had just been taken from the car. A crew member had dived down. The doors of the car were locked but the boot was open. He was able to extract two children - one of the boys and Jodi-Lee (15).

"As we were getting them, we passed them over to the fire brigade," he said. "It was harrowing. To have a family, so many people, gone like that over a very simple thing to go wrong.

"I feel for the poor mother and what road she has ahead of her," he said.

All day long yesterday, a pilgrimage of people - including many young mothers from Derry, clutching their own children by the hand - sorrowfully wound their way down to the pier at Buncrana to gaze silently, amid questioning anguish, into the waters.

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

One young mother, Sarah Harper, had come from Derry to pay her respects, while Susan Kelly and Brigid Doorley, also from Derry, spoke in hushed tones of the disaster. Susan said she was a distant relation of the family, through her great-grandmother.

All Derry people come to Buncrana, she said, explaining why it had been a natural day out for Sean McGrotty, his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels, sister-in-law Jodi-Lee (15) and his own children, Mark (12), Evan (8) and baby Rioghnach-Ann.

"This'd be our first stop. This is Donegal to us," said Susan. It's barely a 10-minute drive and when the weather is fine "it's as good as going foreign," declared Susan.

Bouquets had been left at three separate points along the pier, bearing messages of heart-rending grief.

"You were my best friend," said one left for Mark McGrotty (12).

A wreath had also been left by their "family and friends at Top of the Hill Celtic", their local soccer club in Derry.

And in a devastatingly poignant tribute to the three children whose lives had been snuffed out during their Easter holidays, a little blue tin of sweets in the shape of a bunny rabbit had been placed at the closest point to where the tragedy had happened.

The frantically skidding tiremarks of Sean McGrotty's Audi Q7 were still plainly and tragically visible on the green algae of the slipway, as he wrestled with the car in the helpless battle to save his family.

"The heavy engine just would have dragged it down," said Joe Joyce of the RNLI.

Read more: ‘I’ve lost everyone except little Rioghnach-Ann’

This was not the first time Buncrana has been plunged into mourning. More than 30 years ago, musician Phil Coulter's sister Cyd, a social worker, was killed along with a man she was attempting to counsel when he drove them both off the same pier.

And, in August 1998, the bomb in Omagh claimed the lives of three Buncrana children - Oran Doherty (8) and Sean McLoughlin and James Barker, both 12, had been on a day trip to Omagh when the massive bomb detonated.

Six years ago, the most devastating road crash in the history of the State occurred on the outskirts of Buncrana, when eight men were killed when an overloaded Volkswagen Passat smashed into an oncoming car.

"A lot of sadness has happened around here," said Jim Quinn, a local suicide counsellor.

Once before, he saw a similar accident to that which has claimed the lives of the McGrotty and Daniels family, he said, when a woman was reversing her car and almost slipped in at Buncrana pier but was rescued.

"These things can just happen," he said simply.

Irish Independent

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