Pier horror an unimaginable loss for families, says coroner as misadventure verdicts returned
The jury at the inquest into the Buncrana pier tragedy returned a verdict of death by misadventure in all five cases yesterday.
Sean McGrotty (48), who was the behind the wheel of the Audi Q7 that went off the slipway, died alongside his two sons, Mark (12) and Evan (8), his partner Louise James's sister, Jodie Lee Daniels (14), and her mother, Ruth Daniels (58), on March 20 last year.
After the verdict was returned, the jury of five men and four women recommended that Irish Water Safety take a prominent role in working with all other statutory bodies to promote safety to best international practice on slipways and piers throughout Ireland.
Sobbing from relatives of the two families broke the silence as the verdicts were returned.
Coroner Dr Denis McCauley accepted the verdict and described the sense of loss as "unimaginable".
He paid tribute to the "incredible people" from the emergency services, the RNLI and members of the public who were on the scene within minutes.
Garda Inspector David Murphy, from Buncrana Garda station, also commended the efforts of his officers and singled out Davitt Walsh - the man who saved Ms James and Mr McGrotty's baby daughter - describing him as "an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing".
Inspector Murphy added that there were no words to describe the sadness and sorrow endured by Ms James and the two families.
The cause of death in all five cases was recorded as drowning, which was also the finding of Dr Catriona Dillon, a pathologist attached to Letterkenny hospital.
The jury returned after an hour and 20 minutes considering the verdict and cause of death of Sean McGrotty first, before turning to the four remaining deaths.
In each of these, the jury, which had heard harrowing details of the operation to recover the bodies, retired for a few moments before returning with its verdict.
As the fifth verdict was returned on Evan McGrotty, who had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, the coroner said his death demonstrated the sheer devastation suffered by the family.
Because the eight-year-old's condition was likely to shorten his life, every day was all the more precious, he added.
The inquest, which lasted two days, heard how all five victims had perished in Lough Swilly just seven minutes after a 999 call.
The sole survivor of the tragedy was Mr McGrotty's and Ms James's baby daughter, Rioghnach-Ann, who was four months old at the time.
The little girl was saved by Mr Walsh.
The Audi Q7 being driven by Mr McGrotty was seen going off the slipway at Buncrana pier at 7.12pm by Francis Crawford, who rang the Coastguard.
Mr McGrotty was more than three times over the drink drive limit, post-mortem results showed.
The steep slipway down which the helpless occupants slipped was covered in treacherous, ice-like green algae, and the vehicle plunged uncontrollably into the water.
On day two of the inquest, evidence was heard from John O'Raw, a volunteer with the RNLI who arrived at the scene seven minutes after the incident, by which time the body of Ruth Daniels had been recovered.
Mr O'Raw revealed that he had been involved in three other instances when vehicles had gone off the same slipway without loss of life.
Mr O'Raw, who is also a scuba diver instructor with 40 years' experience, dived to the bottom of the lough where Mr McGrotty's car had sunk.
He tried to open both doors on the passenger side and on the driver's side of the vehicle, but "the door handles didn't work", he said.
Asked if he knew of around 10 other incidences of cars going off the slipway, Mr O'Raw replied: "I am aware of other incidences. I was involved with three other incidences.
"It would be difficult for me to understand how there would have been others and me not being aware of them."
Poignant evidence was heard from a Garda officer, Seamus Callaghan, who was among the first of the emergency service personnel to arrive at the scene.
Garda Callaghan said when he arrived the body of Ruth Daniels had already been recovered from the water by the RNLI volunteers who were preforming CPR.
The remains of Sean McGrotty, Mark and Evan McGrotty and Jodie Lee Daniels were recovered minutes later.
CPR was performed and a defibrillator was used, but emergency services were unable to revive them.
Garda Callaghan said he escorted a local priest to where the remains lay, where prayers were said.
Technical evidence was given by Audi Ireland's Gerard Boyle, who said the company had carried out tests on how its vehicles performed underwater from 2007, which was after Mr McGrotty's car was made.
However, Mr Boyle said it should have been possible to open the doors of the vehicle from the inside even when it was submerged.