Northern Ireland news

Pain of Buncrana pier tragedy still echoing five years on

Above, from left, Buncrana pier victims Mark McGrotty (12) and Evan McGrotty (eight), Sean McGrotty (49), Ruth Daniels (57) and Jodie Lee Daniels (14).
Seamus McKinney

Emergency workers and witnesses to the Buncrana pier tragedy continue to struggle to come to terms with the disaster five years after the drowning, some of those present on the night have revealed.

While floral tributes are often left at the scene, Covid-19 has restricted public commemorations as Louise James and her daughter, Ríoghnach mark today's fifth anniversary of the day when almost her entire family perished.

Her partner Sean McGrotty (49), sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), mother Ruth Daniels (57) and sister Jodie-Lee Daniels (14) all drowned when their car slid into the sea on algae on a slipway at Buncrana pier on March 20, 2016.

As the car sank under the waters of Lough Swilly, Mr McGrotty managed to pass his baby daughter out to Donegal man, Davitt Walsh who had swum out to the vehicle.

Ríoghnach, who was just four months old, was the sole survivor. At an inquest into the five deaths the following year, Garda Seamus Callaghan revealed that four bodies were recovered quickly, with a fifth a short time later. Witnesses recalled rescuers trying desperately but in vain to save Ruth Daniels’ life.

Tributes were paid to Mr Walsh who braved the dangerous tides to rescue baby Ríoghnach. Garda Inspector, David Murphy told the inquest: “Davitt Walsh is an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing.”

The inquest, held in Buncrana, also heard that Mr McGrotty was three times over the Republic’s drink-drive alcohol limit at the time of the tragedy.

On the evening of the tragedy, Buncrana man Francis Crawford and his wife, Kay were enjoying the unusual spring sunshine when they heard Mr McGrotty cry out for help. He called the emergency services and urged Mr Walsh to do something to help.

When contacted by The Irish News this week, Mr Crawford was reluctant to talk about what happened.

“The only thing Kay and I would say is that we think about them every day and they are in our thoughts and prayers every day,” Mr Crawford said.

For the crews of Lough Swilly Lifeboat, the tragedy stood out from any other “shout” they had every undertaken. Lifeboat spokesman, John McCarter said that while the crews have dealt with “too many” tragedies, the Buncrana pier disaster was very different.

“I don’t think any of us will ever forget, all of the crew. It was a harrowing time for us; we were all intimately linked with all the deaths. The lifeboat team have all worked hard to help each other and to mind each other.

Louise James carries the remains of her son at his funeral in March 2016. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“It was such a tough time. We all still think about it. It’ll never leave our memories; it can’t be a case of just moving on to the next one (emergency),” Mr McCarter said.

The Lifeboat spokesman said people still visit Buncrana pier occasionally to leave a floral tribute in memory of the victims.

"I know we'll all be thinking about it in a special way on the anniversary," Mr McCarter said.

Louise James has commented little since the tragedy, on one occasion thanking those who supported her. However, following the 2017 inquest, she issued a brief statement which gave a glimpse of the searing pain that she was living through.

Francis and Kay Crawford who witnessed the Buncrana pier tragedy, pictured at their home one month on from the accident in 2016. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“Every moment of every day is filled with thoughts of my beautiful boys, Mark and Evan, my mother, Ruth, my sister, Jodie Lee and my partner Sean,” the Derry woman said.

She criticised the fact that the slipway was open to the public without any warning signs on show. Notwithstanding the evidence which emerged in the inquest, Ms James paid tribute to Mr McGrotty as a “wonderful partner” and “adoring father”.

“He died as he lived in that he could have saved himself but chose not to.”

Ms James thanked Davitt Walsh and all who helped save her daughter, Ríoghnach, “the only ray of sunshine” in her life.

The funerals of the Buncrana pier tragedy victims took place from Holy Family Church in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

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