Belfast Telegraph

Donegal tragedy: Brother's 'unspeakable heartbreak' as five family members are killed in Buncrana - Sean McGrotty dies alongside sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), partner's mum Ruth Daniels and her daughter Jean

Baby thrown from car after it slid off slipway only survivor of tragedy in Donegal town popular with Derry visitors

By George Jackson

Relatives of the five victims of the Buncrana drowning tragedy have spoken of their "unspeakable heartbreak" at the circumstances in which their loved ones died.

Sean McGrotty, 46, his sons Mark (12), Evan (8) his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels (57) and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie Lee Daniels died when their Audi car slipped into the water.

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A four-month-old baby girl Rionaghac-Ann was passed out the window of the vehicle to a brave man who swam out to the car.

She is said to be recovering in hospital and doing "very well". Her mother was able to visit her on Sunday night.

Sean's brother said he heard of the tragedy and was thinking of those involved before learning it was his relatives who had been killed.

Sean McGrotty lived with his wife Louise and their children in their family home at St Eithne's Park in the Ballymagroarty area of Derry.

Louise had only just returned from a family event in England on Sunday night only to be told that her husband, her two sons, her mother and her sister had all died in the tragedy. She is being comforted by family members and friends.

Read more: Donegal tragedy: Mum returns from hen weekend to learn of deaths of husband, two children, mother and sister

Ruth Daniels lived with her daughter Jodie Lee and with her four sons Joshua, who plays for Derry City, Kyle, Nathan and Jonathan at Ederowen, also in Derry.

The bodies of the five victims will arrive home tomorrow and their funerals will take place on Thursday afternoon following a funeral service liturgy in the Holy Family parish church in Ballymagroarty.

Jim McGrotty, a brother of Sean, speaking on behalf of the family, said they've all been living a nightmare since news of the tragedy unfolded.

He said: "I was sitting at home when news of the tragedy started to emerge last night. My thoughts were for the families of those involved. Little did I realise then that it was my own family members who had died.

"On behalf of the family we want to thank that brave man who swam into the sea and who saved the life of Louise's baby Rionaghac-Ann, who is only four months old.

"We have since found out that Rionaghac-Ann's father Sean handed his baby daughter out of the window of the car into the arms of the brave man who dived in to help just seconds before the car sank with the other family members inside it.

"There has been a constant stream of callers arriving at the house since word of who was involved has become public. On behalf of the family we wish to thank those people for their support and for their love at this very difficult time for us all.

"Words cannot express the enormity of the tragedy which has befallen our family. We are all numbed by this tragedy which has visited us. If there is anything good which has come out of it is the fact that baby Rionaghac-Ann has been saved.

"My brother Sean was the most devoted of fathers and husbands. He idolised his children. Mark was a first year student at St Joseph's Secondary School and Evan his brother, who had muscular dystrophy was a pupil at St Eithne's Primary School. The principals of the schools visited the family home this morning and it was clearly distressing for them. Jodie Lee's principal also called with us and she too was upset", said Mr McGrotty.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who visited the scene in Buncrana after visiting the grieving mother in Derry, said there were no words to sum up her heartache.

"I have just come from meeting a young woman who has lost her partner, her two sons, her mother and her sister and it is a very, very sad house," he said.

"Truly heartbreaking, mind numbing and shocking beyond belief."

Also Among those who visited the family home at St Eithne's Park was local parish priest Fr Paddy O'Kane.

"The grief of the family cannot be measured. There was a numbness and stillness in the family home and my thoughts and prayers and the thoughts and prayers of the entire parish and further afield are with those bereaved," he said.

"Because we do not have Requiem Mass on Holy Thursday the funerals will take place following a funeral service liturgy in Holy Family chapel on Thursday at 2pm", he said.

"Poor Louise has lost so many of her family in this tragedy and she only received the news when she returned from a family function in England yesterday evening. It's just so hard to put into words what has happened to this family", Fr O'Kane said.


Gardai said they were treating it as a "very tragic incident" and appealed for witnesses.

Garda Superintendent Colm Nevin said those who'd helped at the scene and who'd rescued the baby girl had shown great courage.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster issued a joint statement with Martin McGuinness to express sorrow over the deaths.

"We share the widespread sorrow following the tragedy that claimed the lives of five people, including two children, in County Donegal yesterday," they said.

"This tragedy resonates with us all. At times like this it is difficult to comprehend how life can be so altered in the matter of moments.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of those killed, those who tried to help and the responding emergency services. "

A book of condolences is to open in Derry in coming days.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Elisha McCallion said: "This is a terrible tragedy that has affected the entire community in Derry and Donegal and left all of us numb.

"Who would have thought that a family day out could have ended so tragically? It is beyond belief and I can't put into words how sorry I am for the family and those affected by this dreadful accident."

An eye witness at the dockside described the scene last night as harrowing and how the cries of the children's call for help will stay with him for a long time.

The horrific incident happened around 7.15pm at a popular stop-off for tourists wanting to watch the sun set over Lough Swilly.

The town had been packed with visitors on a bright and sunny Sunday at the start of the Easter holidays.

Speaking on Stephen Nolan's BBC radio show, Francis Crawford described the harrowing scene at the dockside.

"I stood there looking and listening and hearing," he said.

"I could hear them, the children in the car as water started to come into the car and that's heart-rendering in itself and I don't want to go on.

"Totally distressing," he said, "and that will stay with me for a long time."

"I was there standing in a totally hopeless and helpless position waiting on help arriving and had it been another 10 minutes...

"It was all hopeless, you needed a boat there right away.

"By the time the boat arrived, there were already bodies on the water and they tried to resuscitate them but it was hopeless."

An infant was passed from the window of the Northern Ireland-registered Audi Q7 to a man who swam out to the car.

Francis pleaded with the man to rescue the family as he stripped down to his underwear to enter the water.

He hailed the man a hero: "And he would have had to look the family in the eye - and I'm sure the man must have felt help was not far away for him and his family."

Mr Crawford said area was popular with sightseers, but that many did not realise algae had covered the end of the slipway making it very slippy.

Mr Crawford said alarm bells started ringing when he noticed how far down the slipway the family's car was.

"I said to my wife, I hope that car doesn't go back any further, they won't be able to get a grip on the cement.

"I screamed down and asked 'are you alright?'.

"A man leaned out and shouted at me to ring the coastguard.

"I phoned 999 and got through immediately and explained that there was a car in the water and it had a family in it and it's going to sink, come as quick as you can, I said, as quick as you can."

Mr Crawford asked the passerby, from Kerrykeel, could he swim. He described how the man stripped down to his underwear and jumped into the water.

"Great that he did, he came back with a wee baby. I didn't know how he got it, he said it was handed out the window to him.

"He was totally exhausted, I'd say if there was another five yards he wouldn't have made it.

"He was taken to hospital then with cuts and different things, so heroic.

"And all this time the car was bobbing around," he continued.

"I was hoping against hope that the services were on their way. I shouted to the man in the car that help was coming and I think the baby being gone gave them hope.

"I was watching the car and it started to dip and all of a sudden it just went down, the whole car and everything stopped.

"It was harrowing, heartrending," he said as he became emotional.

The Sligo Coast Guard 118 Rescue helicopter, RNLI lifeboat crews from Lough Swilly and Greencastle, ambulance crews and gardai all took part in the search and rescue operation.

"I'm feeling hopeless and helpless, there was nothing I could do. That man was shouting at me and I was saying 'they're on their way, they're on their way, everybody's coming'," Mr Crawford added.

"The car just went down and that was it, all over.

"I couldn't have imagined it.

"I felt so hopeless, watching it unfolding it in front of your eyes.

"It was surreal, we go down here all the time, we go down to the pier, there's always people coming and going."

Malin Head Coast Guard later confirmed the baby girl was rushed to Letterkenny Hospital by ambulance crews.

Emergency services continued to scour the shoreline late into the night as the full extent of the tragedy became clear.

But by 9pm it was clear that there were no other survivors and the vehicle pulled from the water.

"It was the most awful scene," said one local man.

"The emergency services worked tirelessly to try to rescue the family, but there was little they could do other than to try to recover them from the water as quickly as possible."

Local people said there had been a number of incidents in recent months, with cars parking on the slipway and pier getting into difficulty.

The slipway has been covered in a thick layer of algae, and there was speculation that the family's vehicle may have been reversing or turning when it hit the slippery surface and slid into the water.

Buncrana Fianna Fail councillor Rena Donaghey told the Belfast Telegraph: "It is shocking, an accident of huge magnitude.

"It is awful, I think the vehicle was just turning and skidded.

"It was a beautiful day, the weather was glorious, and the people involved were probably just out on a Sunday for their day out. We would get a lot of Derry people here, as we are only 11 miles from there.

Buncrana in mourning

This is the second major tragedy to hit the area in recent years. In 2010 eight people were killed on the Inishowen Peninsula in a horrific two-car crash.

"Once again Inishowen has been hit with a terrible, terrible tragedy," said local councillor Jack Murray, who was at the scene last night.

"We knew that something awful had happened when we saw all the emergency services and lifeboat volunteers at the pier, but we weren't prepared for the full horror of it.

"Buncrana is in mourning."

Buncrana is a popular destination for people from Derry on a Sunday afternoon and the good weather meant the town was very busy.


First Minister Arlene Foster described the incident as heartbreaking.

She tweeted: "A tragedy. My sincere sympathies to the family circle & the volunteers who tried their best."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tweeted: "Very sad news of fatalities in an incident at Buncrana Pier tonight.

"Thoughts are with relatives of those involved & rescue services. Tragic."

Foyle DUP Assemblyman Gary Middleton said that the whole community will be "shocked and saddened" at the tragic news.

He added: "Obviously our thoughts go out to the family of the victims of this terrible tragedy, and if reports are to be believed the victims may be from Derry.

"Our thoughts and prayers will be with those involved, and this is a tragedy that will not only affect Donegal, but everyone who hears of it.

"We are all deeply saddened by this terrible news and hopefully the community will rally around the family involved."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the news as "heartbreaking".

Garda sealed off the scene and are conducting a full investigation.

Local people stood in silence at the pier last night as the operation to recover the bodies continued.

The bodies were taken to Letterkenny Hospital where a post-mortem was carried out today.

Buncrana parish priest Fr Francis Bradley told the Belfast Telegraph his parish colleague Fr John Walsh had been faced with heartbreaking scenes at the pier last night.

"The enormity of death is always a tragedy," said Fr Bradley.

"On a beautiful evening and a beautiful place, it is all the more tragic to have such loss as this, and unfortunately our area has become too used to tragedy and loss."

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