Buncrana inquest: slipway in pier tragedy that claimed five lives '˜treacherous to walk on'
Emergency services called after a car plunged off a pier in Ireland arrived within 12 minutes, an eye witness has said.
Evan McGrotty, aged eight, died alongside his 12-year-old brother Mark, his father Sean, 46, grandmother Ruth Daniels, 57, and her 14-year-old daughter, Jodie Lee Daniels, when their SUV sank after sliding off a “slippery as ice” slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal, in March 2016.
By the time the RNLI lifesavers reached the scene the Londonderry family’s car had disappeared into Lough Swilly and the victims were floating in the water, Francis Crawford told an inquest into the tragedy.
There was no suggestion the speed of the response was inappropriate.
He added: “The car was floating, bobbing in the water, 10 to 15 yards from the slipway, and slowly floating, bobbing off to the right of the slipway.
“I could still hear people and the child screaming from the car, all the time the car must have been taking on water.
“I was hoping that the emergency services would arrive and the car would not go down.”
He added: “I could hear sirens, the nose of the car dipped...and the car sank to the bottom.”
Mr Crawford had called the Coastguard for help after Sean McGrotty urged him to seek emergency assistance.
The witness said it took 12 minutes for the RNLI to arrive.
Green algae had covered the slipway.
The first witness to the inquest in Buncrana added: “It was treacherous to walk on, slippery as ice.”
The only survivor was a baby girl.
The child’s mother, Louise James, has said the infant was her only reason to go on living.
Former footballer Davitt Walsh swam out into the harbour in an effort to save the six occupants of the Audi Q7.
Sean McGrotty handed his four-month-old daughter Rionaghac-Ann to Mr Walsh through the broken driver’s side window just moments before the vehicle sank.
Mr Walsh has been awarded a gold medal for bravery at sea.
Mr Crawford said Mr Walsh was too exhausted to go back into the water to attempt to reach the other victims.
Mr Walsh said he had been aware that the algae would be slippery, but that a stranger would not have been aware of the dangers.
When he realised the situation he swam straight to the car.
As he arrived, Mr McGrotty smashed a window in the car.
The father handed him the baby then sat out of the vehicle on the window ledge, his head and shoulders were out and his hands on the roof - but his legs were still inside, Mr Walsh said.
At that stage water which had been seeping in turned into a surge.
Mr Walsh said: “It was like a wave rushing in...it gushed in.”
He added: “I saw a young boy inside the car trying to clamber out past the driver.
“I reached in and grabbed the wee boy, I tried to pull the wee boy out but he seemed to get stuck on something.
“When the driver sat on the window ledge I remember the car tilted and the water then started to gush into the car.
“Just as I was trying to pull the wee boy out of the car the water rushed in and I had to let go.
“The father climbed back into the car, looked back and me and said ‘save my baby’.
“The water gushed in and the car went under the water.”
He added: “I had to let go because I was struggling as hard as I could to avoid getting sucked into the water.”
When he made it back to the slipway and handed the baby to his girlfriend, he collapsed with exhaustion and had to be helped from the slippery surface.
He said: “I could hardly breath, I was so tired.”
It was freezing cold and he suffered cuts to his feet which he was treated for in hospital.
Garda Sergeant Mark Traynor said gardai were on the scene within four or five minutes of the call but by that stage there was no sign of the car.
He said gardai were at the back gate of the station when they received the call.
He added that the RNLI responded within a similar time as its members were returning from an exercise.
Coroner Denis McCauley said: “It is a really short time.”