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Buncrana pier tragedy: 'It seems a short year since the tragedy, but we feel it will take a long time for the wounds to heal'

On the anniversary of the Buncrana pier tragedy, those involved in the frantic efforts to save the lives of the victims speak of how the events of that day still cast a pall over this picturesque village

By Donna Deeney

A faded Derry City football scarf wrapped around a soft toy tied to steel barriers across the slipway at the pier in Buncrana can't begin to tell the magnitude of the loss of life at this spot a year ago. It was on a bright and unseasonably warm Sunday in March that Sean McGrotty (48), his sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), and baby daughter Rioghnach-Ann, their aunt Jodie-Lee Daniels (14) and her mother Ruth Daniels (58) sat in their car watching the sun set.

Seconds later, the car they were in slid on algae on the pier and into the water. Despite the valiant efforts of so many, all but little Rioghnach-Ann were lost.

Louise James, will mark the tragic loss of her partner, two young sons, sister and mother privately along with the McGrotty and Daniels families at an anniversary Mass held in Holy Family Church in the Ballymagroarty area of Londonderry on Monday, from where the five victims were also buried.

The people of Buncrana will remember this dark day in its history long after the collection of teddy bears, rosary beads, flowers and burned out candles have gone from the edge of the slipway.

It is now scrubbed clean of the green algae and the barrier remains shut when the ferry between Buncrana and Rathmullan, on the other side of Lough Swilly, isn't operating.

But people here cannot forget the horror of that Sunday evening - none more so than the Lough Swilly RNLI crew who attended the scene, and who have forged a friendship with Louise James over the past year.

This was the single most traumatic call-out Joe Joyce has had to attend in the 13 years he has been a volunteer crew member with the RNLI.

The effect it continues to have is all too evident in the way his eyes fill with tears as he looks back on the efforts he, his fellow RNLI crew and all of the emergency services made to help the stricken family.

He said: "After the incident, an awful lot of people had the job of squaring it away that five people had actually died here at the pier in Buncrana.

"The fact that this happened at the pier on the slipway was unbelievable. It was very hard, the adrenaline was pumping through you and you were doing what you were trained to do, but when it was all over and you were standing there looking at the scene that had unfolded, it was so surreal. It was like you were in the cinema.

"One of the things that has stayed with me was the silence. There were probably around 100 emergency services personnel here between Garda, fire service, ambulance, lifeboat crews and paramedics, but there was total, total silence. Nothing. No chatter, nothing. Not a word."

He added: "Now, as we leave the berth you always cast your eye over the area and as you are coming in you cast your eyes over and look, and it seems so calm and peaceful and you just think about the terrible event that happened, where five people lost their lives, it's just hard to take in.

"Since then, we have developed a good relationship with the family, they have been down here at the station and had their moments with the crew talking about the event and that has given them some kind of closure too."

Lifeboat operations manager John McCarter - the man at the helm of efforts to get the car and the family out of the water - echoes this bond between the family and the crew.

He said: "Going back to the time of the funerals, we as a crew went up to the home and offered our condolences to the people we had just come into contact with through our service, and that was difficult.

"Since then, a relationship has formed. We know how difficult it was for Louise and the families to come to Buncrana and to come to the pier and we made ourselves available to be as helpful as we could and they appreciated that. We have become firm friends over the period that has elapsed and indeed the family have turned their attentions to working on our behalf some of the time.

"Perhaps it is somewhat therapeutic for them but we are very appreciative of that and delighted to welcome them into our lifeboat family.

"There is no doubt they have a long road ahead, they have a terrible vacuum to try and fill and we just try to be there when we can be useful."

In accordance with the wishes of Louise James and the families, there will be no outward commemoration of this first painful anniversary at the pier, but no doubt there will be those who will choose this now tranquil spot to come to say a silent prayer or gather their thoughts.

One local man who was amongst the first on the scene, Francis Crawford and his wife Kaye, pray for Louise and the McGrotty and Daniels families every day.

Mr Crawford added: "We think about all the people on the pier that night. The efforts that were made were intense, the 118 Rescue helicopter overhead, the lonely figure of Fr John Walsh administering Last Rites to the five deceased.

"In the time that has followed we couldn't have asked for more than the attention given by the medical profession at Buncrana Medical Centre or the kindness and sensitivity shown by the counselling services.

"It seems a short year since they tragedy but we feel it will take a long time for the wounds to heal."

It will be an especially emotional weekend for Davitt Walsh, the hero of Buncrana. He was on the pier that night and tried to rescue the family, managing to save Rioghnach. Ahead of the anniversary, he has found it easier to stay out of the spotlight.

This weekend the public can show their support for the family by taking part in a Muscular Dystrophy fundraising memorial walk along the Quay in Derry. The walk will leave Sainbury's car park at 6pm on Friday, with registration costing £2.50.

All funds will go to the Evan McGrotty Research Fund for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy - the young boy suffered from the condition.

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