Wednesday 17 January 2018

'Save my baby, save my baby' - Hero dad's last words before going back into car to try and rescue family

A tearful Davitt Walsh who rescued the baby from the sinking Audi at Buncrana Pier.
A tearful Davitt Walsh who rescued the baby from the sinking Audi at Buncrana Pier.

Greg Harkin and Cathal McMahon

A HERO footballer who rescued a four-month-old baby from the Buncrana drowning disaster has spoken of how he tried to rescue a second child.

Davitt Walsh heroically dived into to water to try and rescue the family as the car began to sink.

Sean McGrotty (46), his sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels (57) and her 15-year-old daughter Jodie Lee, all died after the Audi vehicle slid off the pier.

The cardiac physiotherapist based at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital spotted the McGrotty family car in difficulty.

Davitt Walsh who rescued the baby from the sinking Audi at Buncrana Pier. (North West Newspix)
Davitt Walsh who rescued the baby from the sinking Audi at Buncrana Pier. (North West Newspix)

Davitt, from Kerrykeel, spoke of the last moments of the tragedy and how dad Sean McGrotty handed him baby Rionaghac-Ann.

Choking back tears Davitt said Sean handed him the baby through the car window shouting: “Take my child. Help my child.”

Dad Sean (back left), mum Louise (back right) holding baby Rioghnach. Bottom left is Evan and bottom Right is Mark.
Dad Sean (back left), mum Louise (back right) holding baby Rioghnach. Bottom left is Evan and bottom Right is Mark.
Evan, Mark and baby Rioghnach
Buncrana pier tragedy victim, Jodie Lee Daniels (15)
Buncrana pier tragedy victim, Ruth Daniels

Said Davitt: “It happened so so fast. I ran down and the local man was there. I know now he was Francis Crawford and he asked me if I could swim, if I could swim to the jeep.

“I asked if there were currents and he said there was but I just stripped down to my underpants to get the best chance of going out and I went in.

“I didn’t stop to think. I got out to the car. The man had to smash the window from the inside and all I could hear was the screaming, lots of screaming coming from inside the car.

“I will never forget those screams. It was awful. The man stayed on the car and just said ‘save my baby, save my baby’.

Francis Crawford at the scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
Francis Crawford at the scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
The scene at Buncrana this morning
Francis Crawford at the scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
Scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
Scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
Scene of the tragedy in Buncrana
Scene of the tragedy in Buncrana

“I think  he could have saved himself but he wanted to stay with his family and  help them.

“I got a grip of another child. I think it was the older boy, about 12 years old but he just got pulled away from me. I don’t know how.

The scene at Buncrana pier today. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
The scene at Buncrana pier today. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
The scene at Buncrana pier today. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

“I probably couldn’t have saved him and the baby and get back again. I don’t know for sure.”

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

Davitt said he pulled the baby away from the car and within second the car filled up and sank.

“All I could think of right then was getting that baby to safety, getting that baby to the shore. I was about 40 metres from the shore and I tried to keep the baby’s head above the water at all times. The baby was looking at me, her eyes were open.”

Davitt, who also played for Finn Harps, had played for his local side Fanad United in the Ulster Senior League earlier on Sunday afternoon.

Girlfriend Stephanie grabbed the infant as Davitt arrived ashore.

“I thought she was dead because she wasn’t making any sounds,” said Stephanie.

“Then she made a little cough. She was so tiny and then I realised she was ok. I took my coat off and wrapped her in it and the ambulance people arrived and took over.”

Davitt received specialist counselling yesterday morning after being released from hospital where he was treated for cuts and bruises.

However he said he feels guilty he didn’t save more people from the car.

“I just couldn’t get the doors open and neither could they. The electrics must have gone once it was in the water,” said Davitt.

“I was pulling and I was telling them they had to get out of the car quickly but they couldn’t. I was telling them it was going to go down but they just couldn’t get out of the car.

“I wanted them all out but there was nothing I could do and there was nothing they could do.

“I just wanted to get them all out but there was nothing I could do. It all just happened so quickly,” he said.

At Letterkenny hospital he spent a short time with the infant.

“That was a very special moment. The nurses were very good and that moment is something I will never forget as long as I live,” said Davitt.

“But I will also never forget the faces on those poor people in that car.”

Dad Billy, a local garda, said he and his family were proud of Davitt, an office manager with a Letterkenny company.

“What he did was just like him,” said Billy.

“He’s an incredibly generous young man and I feel so proud about what he did.

“It was amazing what he did out there in Buncrana on Sunday night and he’s a hero as far as we are concerned.

“We’ll look after him now and make sure he recovers and gets all the help he needs.”

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

Earlier, the brother of tragic dad Sean McGrotty has told how he learned of the horror deaths on Facebook.

The five - two adults, a teenage girl and two young brothers - who died when the SUV they were in slipped off the pier in Buncrana last night were members of one extended family.

Tommy McGrotty, 60, said he read a post about the Donegal nightmare on Sunday night without realising it was his own family who were involved.

Speaking at the family home in the Ballymagroarty area of Derry city, Mr McGrotty explained: "I thought to myself 'somebody's going to get a bad knock at the door tonight'. Just at that minute my phone rang and it was a nephew of mine. He said to me 'you need to get up to my da's house straight away'.

"I went up there thinking it was nothing serious. He told me on the way up that it was more serious, that there was deaths involved and the car had went over the pier."

Tommy visited the scene earlier today and afterwards he spoke to at the family home.

His brother Sean (46), nephews Mark (12) and Evan (8), their grandmother Ruth Daniels (57) and aunt 15-year-old Jodie-Lee Daniels were all killed when their car plunged into waters at Buncrana pier, Donegal.

Tommy explained that they had travelled to Buncrana for a "nice day's outing".

"Louise was away at a family function in England. Sean was out the night before and the granny had the kids. On the Sunday he decided to take them all out for dinner.

"He called down and took the wee ones out to Buncrana. They all had dinner in Buncrana and then he took them to the park along the shore front.

"It must have been on the way home they decided to go look at the sunset on the pier and then, that's when it all went wrong, tragically ended in disaster.

"It was just a day out, it was just a nice day's outing as anybody does on a Sunday. They didn't expect that."

Tommy smiled as he described Evan and Mark as "two characters". Eight-year-old Evan had muscular dystrophy and he was recently measured for his first wheelchair.

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

Despite this he was warmly remembered a happy-go-lucky child who never got upset with his illness.

"Mark would have been the quieter one, he would have been a bit more of a thinker. Whereas Evan was a joker, he loved getting involved and carrying on. He would play to get what he wanted.

"But they were great kids, they wouldn't turn a bad word in your mouth. They just loved life."

Tommy explained that he didn't know Ruth and Jodie-Lee as well.

"Jodi-Lee was a lovely wee girl, beautiful. She could have been a model, she was a great looking wee girl. She had her whole life in front of her."

Devastated mum Louise returned to Derry on Sunday night after a weekend away in Liverpool and she was being comforted by friends and family at her home in Derry city today.

Arrangements were being put in place to fly Sean's father and sister home from Canada for the funerals on Thursday.

Tommy said: "I don't know how the rest of the family will cope. We will just have to be strong and be there for Louise and Rioghnach-Ann and the rest of the kids."

Asked about Louise, Tommy said: "She's heartbroken, how can you cope with it. There is only so much you can take in your life. I think it will take a long time for this to set in, for her to realise what actually has happened. It's the aftermath of it all, she has to cope with that. We have to be there for her and be strong for Louise, that's all we can do."

Her four-month-old daughter survived after she was rescued from the water by a man who jumped in.

The baby is in a stable condition in hospital. It is understood she was passed out of the window of the car by her dad as the car was in the water.

All of those who died were from Derry.

Read More: Five members of extended family, including two young brothers, identified as victims of Buncrana pier tragedy

The early indications are that the vehicle slipped on algae as it turned on the pier, and went into the water.

Jim McGrotty, a brother of Sean, speaking on behalf of the family, said they've all been living a nightmare since news of the tragedy unfolded.

"I was sitting at home when news of the tragedy started to emerge last night. My thoughts were for the families of those involved. Little did I realise then that it was my own family members who had died.

"On behalf of the family we want to thank that brave man who swam into the sea and who saved the life of Louise's baby Rionaghac-Ann, who is only four months old. We have since found out that Rionaghac-Ann's father Sean handed his baby daughter out of the window of the car into the arms of the brave man who dived in to help just seconds before the car sank with the other family members inside it.

"There has been a constant stream of callers arriving at the house since word of who was involved has become public. On behalf of the family we wish to thank those people for their support and for their love at this very difficult time for us all.

"Words cannot express the enormity of the tragedy which has befallen our family. We are all numbed by this tragedy which has visited us. If there is anything good which has come out of it is the fact that baby Rionaghac-Ann has been saved.

Read More: Watch: 'He could hardly hold the baby, he was that exhausted' - Witness describes 'harrowing' scene at Buncrana pier tragedy

"My brother Sean was the most devoted of fathers and husbands. He idolised his children. Mark was a first year student at St. Joseph's Secondary School and Evan his brother, who had muscular dystrophy was a pupil at St. Eithne's Primary School. The principals of the schools visited the family home this morning and it was clearly distressing for them. Jodie Lee's principal also called with us and she too was upset", said Mr. McGrotty.

Among those who visited the family home at St. Eithne's Park yesterday was local parish priest Fr. Paddy O'Kane.

"The grief of the family cannot be measured. There was a numbness and stillness in the family home and my thoughts and prayers and the thoughts and prayers of the entire parish and further afield are with those bereaved," he said.

"Because we do not have Requiem Mass on Holy Thursday the funerals will take place following a funeral service liturgy in Holy Family chapel on Thursday at 2 o'clock", he said.

"Poor Louise has lost so many of her family in this tragedy and she only received the news when she returned from a family function in England yesterday evening. It's just so hard to put into words what has happened to this family", Fr. O'Kane said.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he visited Louise in Derry this morning.

"She was in England when this happened. In fact she actually spoke to her children around seven-o-clock last night in a park in Buncrana and half an hour later they were gone.

"To meet with her this morning was just a scene of utter devastation in the house. She is obviously surrounded by close family members, all of whom are just distraught. It is just one of the most heartbreaking scenes that you could ever envisage."

He continued: "The young woman that I met has to live with this for the rest of her life. How do you live with this?"

Asked how he reacted to the news when he heard it, Mr McGuinness said: "I think we are all stunned, we are all lost for words. It's mind-numbing, it's horrific, it's heartbreaking,  it's all those things. There are no words adequate to describe the loss that a young woman has suffered as a result of this tragedy. I met with her a short time ago. She has lost her partner, her two sons, her mother and her sister.

Read More: Buncrana pier tragedy: Passerby's 'heroic actions definitely saved that baby's life' - RNLI

"Fortunately her four month old baby was saved and hopefully will be okay. The reports are good. It really is a heartbreaking situation."

Mr McGuinness said he travelled to the scene in Buncrana today to speak with and pay tribute to the emergency services.

The Sinn Fein politician singled out one man, from Kerrykeel in Co Donegal, who saved 4-month-old Rioghnach.

"He risked his own life, swam out and saved the baby. That was a truly heroic contribution that he made. We are all stunned, the whhole of Derry and Donegal are stunned that five people on a day out in Buncrana could lose their lives in this way."

Read More: 'It was obvious a horrible tragedy was unfolding' - former local TD

He said the communities of Derry and Donegal "will throw their arms" around the family.

Pensioner Francis Crawford this morning told how the tragedy unfolded before his eyes.

"The whole thing was heart rendering." he said. "You could hear goings on in the car but it was just the driver shouting to me. The wee baby was rescued at that time.

Read more: Buncrana pier tragedy: Passerby's 'heroic actions definitely saved that baby's life' - RNLI

"It was all over then. You hoped that when the rescue services came there would be a pocket of air in the car. I could see that some people had got out of the car, I could see them in the water."

He explained that he had travelled down with his wife shortly before 7.30pm on Sunday.

He said that he turned on the ramp that the car was on but didn't go near the bottom because he knew it to be "slippery as ice, because of the green algae".

The slipway is used for the Buncrana to Rathmullan ferry service which operates during the summer.

"It would appear to me that  the car slipped off," Mr Crawford said. "The man... was from Derry and may not have been familiar with the ramp and sort of slipped in to the water."

Six people - two adults and four children, including the baby - were in the Northern Ireland-registered Audi Q7 vehicle when it went into the water.

The RNLI said the vehicle sank in about 3.5 metres of water.

Those who died are from the Creggan, Galliagh and Ballymagroarty areas of Derry.

"The car started to bobble about," Mr Crawford said.

"It happened not long before I came. I said to my wife, 'if those people don't get back in they are not going to get a grip on the concrete'.

"I went down and asked 'are you alright'? He said 'phone the coastguard, phone the coastguard'

"I dialled 999 and the coastguard and told them that there is a terrible situation developing in Buncrana. I told them: 'There is a car and a family in the water and he was going to sink'."

Read more: Watch: 'He could hardly hold the baby, he was that exhausted' - Witness describes 'harrowing' scene at Buncrana pier tragedy

Mr Crawford explained that the emergency services arrived in minutes but it was too late.

"Everybody was there in a very short time but there was nothing they could do at that stage," Mr Crawford said.

The pensioner said that there was a local man on the pier from a neighbouring parish.

"I asked him if he could go in. He stripped off to his underwear and headed out in very cold conditions, the car was well out at this stage.

"He came back in, he was totally exhausted. I don't think he could have gone another five yards in the water. He had the wee baby with him.

"He was shouting 'take the baby, take the baby'. He could hardly hold the baby, he was that exhausted."

Crew member and communications officer with Lough Swilly RNLI Joe Joyce described the actions of the man who entered the water to save the life of a baby girl as "heroic".

The heroic man has been identified as David Walsh from Kerrykeel in Donegal. 

Speaking to Newstalk's Pat Kenny Show, Mr Joyce said his "quick actions saved that child's life".

"When we arrived at the scene, there had been a person on the pier who stripped down and entered the water and took hold of the infant."

"His quick actions definitely saved that child's life."

Witness Mr Crawford continued: "At that stage the car was still bobbling."

"I was hoping against hope, knowing everybody was coming, that this would stay afloat. All of a sudden the lot just went under the water."

Mr Crawford explained that there were very few on the pier at the time. He said that it took a while for it to register with people just what was unfolding.

"The ambulance service came and took them in and gave them mouth to mouth but there was no hope, nothing was going to happen at that stage. Too long had passed.

"The car was under too long for anything positive to happen."

Read More: Buncrana tragedy: Baby rescued after she was 'thrown from car' as family die in pier tragedy

The Coast Guard 118 Rescue helicopter, RNLI lifeboat crews from Lough Swilly and Greencastle, ambulance crews and gardaí all took part in the search and rescue operation.

But by 9pm it was clear that there were no other survivors.

A garda superintendent has described the deaths of five members of the one family as a "terrible tragedy".

Supt Colm Nevin said it was one of the biggest incidents they have dealt with in North Donegal for a long, long time.

Speaking at the scene in Buncrana pier, Supt Nevin said they received a call at Buncrana garda station at 7pm yesterday evening telling them that a vehicle had entered the water.

"The emergency services attended very quickly to the scene. We were also told there were a number of occupants in the vehicle at the time.

"A bystander who was standing by rescued a four-month old baby from the vehicle and that baby is now in Letterkenny hospital doing very well.

"The vehicle has been recovered. It was an Audi Q 7. There was five occupants in the vehicle  and they were recovered by local divers."

He said they have identified the deceased and informed their families overnight. Supt Nevin confirmed two adults - one male and one female - and three children - two male and one female - died in the incident.

Gardai were assisted at the scene by other emergency services, the RNLI, the local fire brigade, the HSE, local divers and also the local helicopter.

"We are treating this as a very tragic incident."

Supt Nevin said a number of witnesses have come forward and appealed for others to contact them in Buncrana station on 0749320540

Asked to described the incident the garda superintendent said: "It's a terrible tragedy it is one of the biggest ones we have experienced here in north Donegal for a long long time."

Meanwhile, RNLI John McArthur Operations Manager said the volunteer rescue team are already undergoing counselling sessions today.

"Our team go into automatic pilot and their training kicks in and they do what they have to do," Mr McArthur said of his team.

"We offer our volunteers support and counselling which is already ongoing today.

"We do what we can and we try and help them and support them at this time after what they have witnessed and been a part of.

"We will continue to do that for as long as necessary. Our hearts go out to the families who are trying to come to terms with this huge loss. "We can only begin to think about what they're going through," he added.

Specialist counsellors are being offered to support people affected by the tragedy.

The HSE expressed its deepest sympathy to the bereaved families on their tragic loss following the incident on Sunday.

In a statement the organisation said: "The HSE is  liaising with local services to support the  Buncrana community at this time.

"Anyone who has been directly affected by this tragedy is advised to speak with their GP who will arrange onward referral to the appropriate service where relevant."

Additionally the HSE  Psychology and Bereavement Counselling Services accept self referrals and may be contacted  at  Tel: 074910464.

The Jigsaw Service  provides services to any young person between 15 and 25 years and can be contacted at Tel: 0749726920.

If wished, donations in lieu of flowers to Muscular Dystrophy UK (Duchenne Research Breakthrough Fund), c/o Ms. Cathryn Gibson, 29 Cranmore Park, Belfast BT9 6JF.

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