Buncrana inquest: Driver in Buncrana pier tragedy died by misadventure, jurors say

Louise James, who lost five members of her family in the Buncrana Pier tragedy, arrives at this week's inquest in Buncrana.
Louise James, who lost five members of her family in the Buncrana Pier tragedy, arrives at this week's inquest in Buncrana.

The driver of a car which plunged off a pier in Ireland and killed five people died by “misadventure”, inquest jurors said.

Sean McGrotty, 49, was over the drink-drive limit when his 4x4 vehicle slid down a treacherous and algae-covered slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal, in March last year, a previous hearing of the inquest was told.

Evan McGrotty, eight, his father Sean, 12-year-old brother Mark, grandmother Ruth Daniels, 59, and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie Lee Daniels died when their SUV sank after sliding off the “slippery as ice” surface.

Mr McGrotty’s four-month-old baby Rioghnach-Ann was saved by an heroic rescuer who entered the freezing waters of Lough Swilly in response to the distressed cries of the children and pleas for help from their father.

The jury’s foreman said: “The finding was that death was due to drowning.

“Cause of death was death by misadventure.”

Flowers left at the scene at Buncrana Pierin the days following of the tragedy. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Flowers left at the scene at Buncrana Pierin the days following of the tragedy. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Misadventure means jurors think there was risk associated with the events of the day and that somebody had done something that increased the risk of the event happening, the coroner said.

The spokesman for the five men and four women on the jury urged the Irish Water Safety promotional organisation to take a prominent role in advising and working with all interested parties on implementing best international practice for safety on all slipways and piers.

He added: “We hope that this can be implemented as quickly as possible in the light of the tragedy.”

A post-mortem examination found that Mr McGrotty was more than three times over the legal drink-driving limit, a pathologist told the inquest in Buncrana on Wednesday.

File photo dated 21/03/16 of the scene at Buncrana Pier in Co Donegal after Sean McGrotty and his sons Mark, 12, and Evan, eight, died along with his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels, 57, and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie Lee Daniels after their SUV sank after sliding off the pier slipway

File photo dated 21/03/16 of the scene at Buncrana Pier in Co Donegal after Sean McGrotty and his sons Mark, 12, and Evan, eight, died along with his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels, 57, and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie Lee Daniels after their SUV sank after sliding off the pier slipway

He was found to have consumed 159 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, when the drink-drive limit is only 50.

There were no signs at the slipway warning of the dangers of slipping and a gate designed to control crowds using a summer ferry service in the popular tourist spot was left open.

It was used by people watching the sun going down despite dangers highlighted during the inquest.

The car was seen drifting out into Lough Swilly and bobbing around 20 metres from shore as children screamed for help before it finally sank three metres deep, eye witnesses said.

Sean McGrotty, his two sons Mark and Evan McGrotty, his partners mother Ruth Daniels and her daughter Jodie-Lee Daniels lost their lives in the Buncrana Pier tragedy in 2016

Sean McGrotty, his two sons Mark and Evan McGrotty, his partners mother Ruth Daniels and her daughter Jodie-Lee Daniels lost their lives in the Buncrana Pier tragedy in 2016

The inquest was told the doors of the car would not budge when a diver tried them and a window was only partly open, suggesting the electronics failed at some point due to the water.

A public safety expert who gave evidence urged drivers to carry equipment to break the car window and wanted information on escaping from water included in instruction manuals.

John Leech from the Irish Water Safety promotional body said those becalmed often had only a minute to take action like undoing seatbelts and rolling down windows before exiting safely.

Former footballer Davitt Walsh swam out into the harbour in an effort to save the six occupants of the Audi Q7 and rescued baby Rionaghac-Ann.

Mr McGrotty handed his daughter to Mr Walsh through the driver’s side window moments before the vehicle sank.

Mr Walsh tried to save another child, but said he seemed to “get stuck” on something.

Davitt Walsh, who swam out into the harbour in an effort to save six occupants of an Audi Q7 that plunged off a pier, arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal, where an inquest into the deaths of five of the family members is taking place

Davitt Walsh, who swam out into the harbour in an effort to save six occupants of an Audi Q7 that plunged off a pier, arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal, where an inquest into the deaths of five of the family members is taking place

Garda Inspector David Murphy told the inquest: “Davitt Walsh is an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing.”

He paid tribute to rescuers who arrived within minutes.

“Their actions are the truest reflection of the unstinting service provided by An Garda Siochana.”

Coroner Dr Denis McCauley said the jury had handed the Irish safety authority a “golden key” in its dealings with other agencies, to become the main agency in raising prevention issues.

He said he could not imagine what the victims’ families were going through.

“It is a terrible thing, we can see that it is just unimaginable.”

He said the response times of the emergency services were incredible.

“They did it with immense thought for the tragedy that did unfold.”

On Thursday it emerged an RNLI diver was unable to gain access to the Audi after it was submerged around 20 metres from shore because the handles did not open the doors.

Discussion also surrounded the use of laminated glass which made it considerably more difficult to break through the windows, technical experts said.

The inquest was also told by a technical expert and representative of the manufacturer that once the vehicle lost grip on the slippery algae it would have been uncontrollable.

For Audi, Gerard Boyle said when the control unit became wet it would have shut down and the door would have been left in its original condition, locked or unlocked.

Other evidence suggested the car must have been locked at the time of the accident since rescuers were not able to get the door open, the inquest was told.

Inspector Murphy added: “We truly hope the conclusion of the inquest will go some way to aiding the grieving process.

“Generations of a family have lost their lives, as we have heard in the course of this inquest.”

He said the tragedy has impacted on many communities including Buncrana, the Inishowen peninsula and around the country.

The jury recorded a similar verdict in the death of Ruth Daniels, 57.

A post-mortem said Ruth Daniels had prescription medication in her blood but no alcohol. The jury said she also died from drowning.

CPR was performed on her but failed to save her life.

Mark McGrotty was moved out of the car through the tailgate, a police diver told the inquest.

The jury said he also died from drowning.

Also read: Buncrana inquest: Jury considering verdict in Buncrana pier tragedy inquest

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Buncrana inquest: Slipway in pier tragedy that claimed five lives ‘treacherous to walk on’