Belfast Telegraph

Buncrana tragedy: Heroism of a father who wouldn't abandon his family, and stranger who risked it all to rescue a baby, restores your faith in humanity

By Geoffrey Beattie

It is the stuff of nightmares. A family day out, a father, grandmother, three children and a wee tiny baby out for a drive just over the border to watch the sunset from Buncrana pier. A celebration of natural beauty, an uplifting sort of experience for the whole family to share and to talk about.

"Have you watched the sun go down over Lough Swilly?" Sean will have said. "Then you haven't really lived. It's a great sight. That's the point about this country, it's a beautiful place, if you just take the time to appreciate it."

And then this.

A young family with their lives so needlessly and senselessly cut short by the most tragic and unforeseeable of accidents. The mother away to England for a hen party looking forward to getting to see her family again, a reunion that would never come. It's almost impossible not to fill in the blanks, to project our own words and feelings into those moments before and after. This is, after all, a familiar story until the very end.

We can imagine the mother saying goodbye to her family before she headed off, telling them to "take good care of little Rioghnach-Ann, look after her, and get her home in good time". She would tell her mother to make sure that they all listened. The boys would have been very excited by the trip. We can see it in their faces. The dad telling them all to play games on the way out, to make the time go even quicker. "We'll be there soon enough," he would say. "We'll not miss the sunset."

The incident has deeply affected many people across Northern Ireland, the Republic and far beyond.

It's more than the terrible loss of the young lives. Partly it's the awful details. The car sliding into the water on the algae, slowly at first, but with no way to stop it. The wheels touch the water, but it keeps on sliding, the water lapping around the wheel arches. The car going under, the father saving the baby, passing it out to a rescuer, but staying in the car with his family to the very end. Then the silence, according to observers. That chilling and forbidding awful silence.

It is the stuff of nightmares all right.

There are, after all, nightmares familiar to many of us, when we are in motion in some vehicle and we are desperately trying to stop it, pushing our foot to the floor, pressing the imaginary brakes, but nothing happens. It's an anxiety dream, about being out of control, about destiny and fate, and we sweat in our dream state when we are having it. So we press down harder and harder on that brake, but eventually we wake up, shaken by the codified experience presented to us by our unconscious mind. But even our unconscious mind would baulk at presenting the full horrors here on that family day out. The family in its metal cage lowered into the lapping, dark waters of the lough. It's like being swallowed alive.

They say that we are becoming desensitised to tragedy. There's just so much of it these days, right in front of us. Twenty-four hour news broadcasting wave upon wave of human tragedy and suffering. Images of misery that get fixed in our minds for weeks on end, but eventually they fade.

I can close my eyes at this very moment and visualise another horror story this week: the bombs in Brussels airport. I can see the blood dripping from the injured forehead of the Indian air stewardess at Zaventem airport. The blood trickles down her nose and off the end of her chin. She straddles several adjacent airport seats. She is wearing a bright yellow jacket, which is now in tatters, exposing her black bra and the fold of her stomach over her black jeans. She looks straight at the camera in a state of shock and total helplessness. The grey dust from the explosion covers her hair and her clothes. But particularly her hair, so that she looks like she has aged several decades in an instant.

The woman beside her is using her mobile phone, presumably to reassure loved ones. The right hand holding the phone is bloodied, so red that looks as if it has been dipped in a can of red paint. The red paint runs down her white sweater. The colour of the blood perfectly matches her scarf. She holds her neck for security and reassurance. But the contrast between the two women is stark. One, despite what has just happened, has still a little control in her life. The other is completely frozen with fear and bewilderment.

This was a powerful and vivid image that made you pause and think. It represented the sheer randomness of terrorism. No race, creed or colour is immune to the blind fanaticism of Isis. It represented the sudden and immediate disjunction to the everyday and the mundane and yet the only world we know. Passengers travelling to work, flight attendants amongst them, and then this complete sense of incomprehension and desolation, loss and change. But this image, no matter how powerful and vivid, will be pushed aside by the next atrocity to hit our screens. We only have a limited capacity to store these kinds of memories. The images of the Bataclan have faded already in my mind, I am ashamed to say. But some tragedies will never fade from our memories in this way. What happened in Buncrana to Sean McGrotty and his family is one of those incidents that will lodge in our subconscious for ever. This is not just because it is closer to home, or the fact that we all know that Buncrana is a great wee place for a day out, safe and predictable. The kind of place we used to go to as children "for a wee day here and a wee day there", as my mother used to put it. It will stick in our memories because it was a family together, trying to turn the car and slipping on some algae, never the kind of thing to result in this unspeakable horror.

Psychologists often talk about bystander apathy, when passers-by see something bad happening but don't intervene.

The passers-by do nothing to help. Psychologists talk about the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when the event is witnessed by more than one person, and no one individual feels that it is his, or her, responsibility to act. Passers-by can sometimes not even "see" what is happening, or that's what they say afterwards. Or they explain that they thought that it might not be that serious after all.

But that tragic day was not like this. A passer-by, Davitt Walsh, went into the water to try to save the family trapped in their car. But what happened next was even more emotive.

Davitt said: "The water started to seep in and Sean handed me the baby infant and said, 'Take my baby'. The water started coming in and he just looked at me and said, 'Save my baby'. I took the baby and held it above my head and I swam back to shore." His girlfriend helped get the infant out of the water and warmed the child turning blue with the cold.

It is hard to read about these tragic few moments without welling up.

You cannot sit as the neutral observer any longer, looking down at the forlorn and the helpless in the image of Brussels airport, relieved that you weren't travelling that day.

You are drawn in emotionally like never before. Davitt made an active choice that day that confronts us all, as we wonder to ourselves if we would have been that brave. Sean made the final decision to stay with his family right to the end, and we wonder if we could put our family first at that moment of crisis, which we might try to imagine and rehearse during casual moments of reflection, but we know that it will never feel the same in real life.

I've welled up here because I'm so proud of the two of them, putting others first in a world of bystander apathy and ice-cold terrorists who care for nothing, except selfishly what they've been promised in the next life.

Davitt will almost certainly experience profound guilt in the future, guilt that he couldn't have done more to save the whole family. His heroic actions won't necessarily protect him from that insidious feeling.

That's the awful burden of tragedies for those caught up in them. You can never do enough. Davitt and Sean remind me of the goodness of the people on this island, and what they're capable of without even thinking about it.

Their first instinctive response tells you everything you need to know about them and their courage, and acts as a reminder of what the rest of us can only aspire to in the face of the unspeakable horrors that life can sometimes serve up.

Sean's partner, Louise James, has to come to terms with all of this and bring up her miracle baby, and tell her all about the father she will never know.

The father who couldn't abandon his children, no matter what. That's what she'll say: "No matter what'"

And little Rioghnach-Ann will weep with pride, when she's old enough, and so much more.

Geoffrey Beattie is an academic psychologist, writer and broadcaster

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