Opinion Columnists

Tuesday 20 August 2019

A tragic day of shadows and secrets

Key questions may never be answered over the drowning tragedy at Buncrana, writes Andrew Phelan

The pier at Buncrana, Co Donegal Picture: Caroline Quinn
The pier at Buncrana, Co Donegal Picture: Caroline Quinn
Andrew Phelan

Andrew Phelan

Buncrana's Lake of Shadows Hotel sits among a cluster of low-set buildings huddled on the eastern edge of Lough Swilly.

It seems an oddly poetic name for a hotel until you realise it's a translation of the Irish for the lough, whose tidal waters lap the shores a stone's throw away.

This week, a coroner's court was convened in its dimly-lit function room to try to make sense of the events of one terrible day last year, when those waters claimed five lives in one of Ireland's worst-ever drowning tragedies.

That day, March 20, 2016, Sean McGrotty (49), his sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), their grandmother Ruth Daniels (58) and her daughter Jodie Lee Tracey (14) all died when their SUV slid into the lough from a slipway on Buncrana pier.

Just Mr McGrotty's baby daughter Rioghnach-Ann survived, saved by the swift and courageous actions of local man Davitt Walsh, who swam out and took the baby from her father's arms as the Audi Q7 sank.

But while the inquest into the tragedy sought to shine some light into the darkness of that day's horrible events, it left many unanswered - and perhaps unanswerable - questions.

Louise James
Louise James

The known facts are brutally clear. Mr McGrotty and his family, from Derry, had gone on an outing to Buncrana on a beautiful spring evening.

After dinner at the pier, they all went to a play park by the shore with the children.

Mr McGrotty's partner Louise James was away in Liverpool at a hen weekend. She was in constant contact and last spoke to her sister Jodie Lee on the phone at 6.55pm.

Shortly after, Mr McGrotty decided to drive down to the slipway. It was just before sunset and the pier was a popular viewing point. The end of the slipway was covered in thick, slippery algae.

A post-mortem exam would later show Mr McGrotty had been drinking - his blood alcohol level was three times the drink driving limit.

A witness, Francis Crawford, arrived at around 7.08pm and saw the SUV in the water - he believed it had gone in seconds earlier.

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

Mr McGrotty shouted in panic out of an open window: "phone the coastguard" as the children screamed.

The Audi had drifted out 20 metres from the end of the slipway and was bobbing half-sunk in the water when Davitt Walsh arrived and swam out. Mr McGrotty used his elbow to smash the half-open driver's door window and passed out the baby.

As Mr McGrotty sat on the window ledge, water gushed into the car.

Mr Walsh, holding the baby above the water in one hand, grabbed hold of one of the boys with his other.

The hero's voice faltered only once as he recalled the moment he realised the boy was stuck and the jeep was about to sink.

"I had to let go," he told the inquest.

There was evidence the car fully sank after 7.20pm - around 12 minutes after Mr Crawford arrived.

It was already submerged and all five victims were lost by the time the emergency services arrived.

Although too late to help, their response time was not in question and Donegal Coroner, Dr Denis McCauley, praised their "incredible speed".

So what do we know of Mr McGrotty and his family's movements in their final hours? The only evidence came from Louise James, in her account of that final phone call to her sister, her brief references to a meal and a play park visit.

Later, at 7.25pm, while waiting for a flight home, Louise seemed to have a chilling, inexplicable premonition, sensing "something wasn't right, I don't know why".

When she landed in Belfast, her brother Joshua phoned her with the devastating news: "they're all gone" - her partner, their sons, her mother and her sister.

What of Mr McGrotty's "condition", as Dr McCauley put it?

There was no indication of when or where he had been drinking; or how much, or to what level he might have been intoxicated.

"I cannot say what level of impairment the driver had," pathologist Catriona Dillon told Dr McCauley, adding that every person was different and there were "many factors at play".

Why did Mr McGrotty decide to drive down the slipway?

If his judgement was not affected by alcohol, did he just not see the danger? Mr Crawford described the algae on the slipway as "treacherous" and slippery as ice. While cars would drive on to it, he said as a local he knew the dangers but "a stranger would not know".

Mr McGrotty would have passed an open gate to the slipway and the only warning sign referred to swimming.

Nevertheless, John McLaughlin, a Donegal County Council engineer, said he believed the risk posed by algae was "self evident" and the council still had no plans to put up slippery surface signs.

Irish Water Safety CEO John Leech said the slipway tragedy was the only such accident during his 17 years in the organisation.

The inquest heard of at least three other non-fatal "incidents".

Once on the algae, Mr McGrotty's Q7's wheels must have lost traction, causing the SUV to slide uncontrollably toward the water and leaving "train track" tyre marks.

But after the vehicle entered the lough, why did the doors stay closed? The water was just four to five inches up the wheels when Mr Crawford first saw it.

The SUV's electrical door locking mechanisms should not have failed until the water entered the boot, where the control unit was housed. Even then, according to Audi's expert Gerard Boyle, those inside should have been able to open the doors manually by pulling the handles. The inquest heard the pressure would have equalised as the water flooded in the open driver's window.

Although the SUV model Mr McGrotty drove pre-dated underwater testing, Mr Boyle also accepted the windows should have been operable for several minutes as the waters rose.

There was evidence that Mr McGrotty had used "considerable force" in smashing the window in his desperate efforts to get himself and his family out.

But if it had been possible to open the doors, did he not try the handles at any point? Did nobody inside try the handles during those unimaginably terrifying 12 minutes?

Less than an hour after the Q7 sank, RNLI diver John O'Raw could not open the doors from the outside. However, vehicle inspector Garda Damien Mulkearns was able to open them when the jeep had been a day out of the water.

Dr McCauley rightly stressed throughout the hearings that the purpose of an inquest was not to apportion blame to anyone, and nobody was prosecuted following the tragedy.

The jury concluded all five deaths were by misadventure, rather than a "genuine accident".

Outside in drizzling rain, Louise James spoke through her solicitor of her pain, disbelief and anger over what had happened "on that fateful day". She was adamant that the slipway had been an "accident waiting to happen".

Darkness had again fallen on the still waters of the nearby lough, which, it seems, may never give up all its secrets.

Sunday Independent

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