Belfast Telegraph

Buncrana pier tragedy dad McGrotty was three times over drink drive limit

By Donna Deeny

A father whose car slid into Lough Swilly in Co Donegal, killing himself and four other members of the same Londonderry family, was more than three times over the drink drive limit at the time, an inquest has heard.

Sean McGrotty (48), who was behind the wheel of the Audi, 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, 2016.

Pathologist Dr Catriona Dillon, who carried out the post-mortem, told the opening day of the inquest the fact that he was three times over the limit may have affected events.

The inquest conducted by Coroner Dr Denis McCauley also heard that Ms James, who was in Liverpool when the tragedy occurred, had a "feeling" something terrible had happened at around the time all five perished in Buncrana.

The couple's baby daughter Ríoghnach-Ann, who was then four months old, was the sole survivor.

Ms James's statement to gardai was read out yesterday. The inquest heard how she last saw her family at around 4pm on Friday, March 18, 2016 before she left for a hen weekend in Liverpool, although she had been in constant contact with them.

She last spoke with her sister Jodie Lee and two sons Evan and Mark at 6.55pm on the Sunday when she told them she would see them all later that day - just 17 minutes before tragedy struck.

She said: "At 7.25pm I had a feeling something wasn't right. I don't know why but I got a feeling something wasn't right.

"I tried to contact Sean and Jodie but I couldn't get through."

Ms James called her brother Nathan to ask if her mother had returned home and when he said she hadn't she called her brother Joshua. He asked her if she was on Facebook because a car had gone off the pier at Buncrana.

Ms James told her brother her family were in Buncrana and asked him to check if they were okay and to get back to her "quickly" because she was about to board a plane and had to switch her phone off.

When she arrived at the airport, Joshua called to break the devastating news.

After arriving in Derry city, Ms James was taken to the morgue at Letterkenny General Hospital where she first spent time with her baby before going to identify the bodies of her partner Sean, mother Ruth, sister Jodie Lee and sons Evan and Mark. No questions were put to Ms James about her evidence by Dr McCauley or any of the legal representatives.

Earlier the inquest heard from two witnesses who arrived on the scene as Mr McGrotty's car was sinking into the water and who raised the alarm.

Francis Crawford arrived at the pier by car along with his wife Kay at around 7pm, by which time Mr McGrotty's car was around four inches deep in water.

Mr Crawford said he realised very quickly that "something had gone badly wrong" just before he heard Mr McGrotty call out "phone the coastguard, phone the coastguard".

Mr Crawford made the call and emphasised the scale of the tragedy unfolding in front of his eyes, saying "there is a car going off the pier".

He also told the inquest how he could hear a child "squealing, roaring, crying" from inside the car.

Mr Crawford told how the car was "slowly moving off the slipway" and was bobbing in the water before the nose of the vehicle tipped "suddenly" and sank below the water.

By this time another man, Davitt Walsh, had arrived on the scene, had stripped off his clothes and had swam out to the family and rescued the baby before returning to the shore.

Mr Crawford said he had hoped against hope that others could have been saved.

He also explained how, as a local resident, he knew how treacherous the slipway was because of algae and told the court there were around "10 other incidences" when cars had previously entered the water, although none had resulted in tragedy.

Pathologist Dr Dillon told yesterday's hearing that Mr McGrotty's death was caused by drowning.

She also said that blood samples taken from Mr McGrotty contained 159mg of alcohol per decimetre. The legal limit for driving is 50. Dr Dillon said the level "may indicate a level of intoxication" but she could not say what the level of impairment might be.

She explained that she couldn't be sure because it affected different people in different ways.

Evidence from gardai who were on the scene between 16 and 17 minutes after Mr Crawford made his emergency call showed Mr McGrotty's car was already submerged in the water and a body recovery operation was taking place.

After the victims were pronounced dead at the scene by a local doctor, they were removed to Letterkenny Hospital morgue. The area around the scene was secured after gardai confirmed with a family member the number of people who were in the car and that all members were accounted for.

Expert evidence about the effect of algae on the slipway and the traction of vehicle tyres on these types of surfaces was also heard from the director of Road and Transport at Donegal County Council and John Leech from Irish Water Safety.

The inquests continues today where evidence concerning the deaths of Mark and Evan McGrotty, Jodie Lee Daniels and Ruth Daniels will be heard.

Belfast Telegraph

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