Belfast Telegraph

Mother's tears as inquest recalls devastating slipway tragedy that ripped apart her family

By Nicola Anderson

Down at the pier in Buncrana, a heartwrenching shrine of teddy bears and holy medals still remains.

It is the sole indicator of the catastrophic blow that struck here 20 months ago - aside from a sign on the gate that bears the tersely worded message: "Slipway temporarily closed."

At this time of the year, waves lash bleakly onto the shores of Lough Swilly - a world away from the balmy summer-like conditions which had brought Sean McGrotty, his children and extended family down to enjoy the sunset on March 20, 2016.

The small, poignant figure of Louise James stood by her solicitor's elbow as he read aloud her statement that told how her heart had been shattered by the loss of her mother Ruth Daniels (58), her sister Jodie Lee (14), her partner Sean McGrotty (49), and sons Mark (14) and Evan (8).

Only her daughter Rioghnach-Ann who survived "this horrible tragedy" remains - her "one ray of sunshine," Louise said.

Her stoicism throughout the two-day inquest this week at the Lake of Shadows hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal, had been touching to observe.

But she broke down and wept as coroner Denis McCauley told how Evan had muscular dystrophy - a condition that "should have ended his life early". Every day counted and for that to have ended prematurely was "devastating and terrible", he said.

She had wept earlier in the hearing too as her deposition was read aloud detailing how she had identified first Sean, then her "mammy Ruth," her sister Jodie Lee and then Mark and Evan.

She had last seen her beloved family on Friday at 4pm and spent the weekend in Liverpool on a hen party trip. She had been in "constant contact" with them and last spoke to Jodie Lee at 6.55pm on Sunday evening - who had told her they were in the play park down at the shore in Buncrana. Sean had taken everyone to dinner at the pier.

At 7.25pm she got the feeling "something wasn't right" and tried to contact them, to no avail. On arriving at Belfast airport, her brother Joshua phoned her, telling her to keep calm. Sean was the first to be identified, he said, adding: "They're all gone," but Rioghnach was okay and in hospital in Letterkenny.

Nobody saw the car enter the water and it was unclear why the family had been unable to open the doors of the Audi Q7 jeep, the inquest heard. An Audi expert contended that it should have been possible.

The water was already rising up the wheels when eyewitnesses Francis and Kay Crawford first spotted it, with Sean McGrotty shouting at them to phone the coastguard. The slipway had been "slippy as ice" with algae, Francis said.

Davitt Walsh, with his then girlfriend Stephanie Knox, had then come on the scene and he swam out. Sean had handed the baby out through the window he had smashed with his elbow and Davitt had a grip on the hand of one of the young boys. But the water was gushing into the car "like a wave" and the child seemed to be stuck on something. "I had to let go," said Davitt. "Save the baby, save my baby," Sean had said to him.

Each of the victims were retrieved by RNLI members but resuscitation attempts were fruitless. An autopsy showed Sean to have been three times over the drink drive limit.

The inquest jury returned verdicts of death by misadventure, caused by drowning, with a recommendation that Irish Water Safety work with all interested parties to ensure best international practice and standards at all slipways and piers.

Belfast Telegraph


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