Buncrana: The father just looked at me and said ‘save my baby’
Davitt Walsh dived into water at Buncrana pier and saved four-month-old baby girl
The last words heard from Seán McGrotty were “save the baby”, a still traumatised Davitt Walsh recalled at his home in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal on Monday night.
Mr Walsh was praised for risking his life to save four-month-old baby Rionaghac-Ann McGrotty at Buncrana pier on Sunday night, but for this brave 29-year-old Kerrykeel man his awe, admiration and deep sadness was for the McGrotty family and for the father who could have saved his own life, but instead stayed to the end with four others of a close-knit Derry family.
Those who died along with Mr McGrotty were his sons Mark (12), and Evan (8), his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels (who was in her 50s) and Ruth’s daughter Jodie Lee Daniels (14).
The McGrottys had been out enjoying a beautiful spring evening, admiring the view over Lough Swilly, a panorama known as the Lake of Shadows, when their Audi slid on a slipway made treacherous by algae and Mr McGrotty was helpless to prevent the car sliding into the sea. The brake marks where he tried to halt the car were still visible on Monday.
Mr Walsh and his girlfriend Stephanie Knox had been out for a walk and, as they drove away from the pier, Ms Knox, a cardiac physiotherapist at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital, noticed a car in the water.
“I went down to help straight away,” Mr Walsh said. “We got out of the car, there was a guy there – his name was Francis – who said, ‘ring the coastguard, ring the coastguard’. I had the phone, I gave it to my girlfriend to ring.
“I looked out and I could see the distress on the family – the father, mother, the children were all screaming ‘help, help’. I can’t describe how I was feeling. I will never forget those screams.
Mr Walsh stripped to his underwear and swam out to the McGrottys’s car which was then some 20 metres (65ft) out from Buncrana pier. “I didn’t think, I just took off my clothes down to my boxers and I swam out as fast as I could out to the family. When I got to the car the engine was completely submerged and the back of the car was up in the air.
“Just as I got out there the father had the window half ajar, and he started hitting it with his elbow to break it. I started shouting, ‘please everyone has to get out of the car – the car is going to go down, everyone has to get out’.
“I just couldn’t get the doors open and neither could they. The electrics must have went. I was pulling and I was telling them they had to get out of the car quickly but they couldn’t. I was telling them it was going to go down but they just couldn’t get out. I just wanted to get them all out but there was nothing I could do. It all just happened so quickly.
“At this stage, with the window broken, the father sat out on the ledge, and the water started to seep in. He handed me the baby infant and he said ‘take the baby’. I took the baby, and I said ‘someone else’, I wanted to save more people.
“I had a grip of another, I think he was about 12 years old but he was pulled away from me somehow. When I think about it now, I simply could not have held him up as well and managed to swim away.
“The water started going in. The father 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. Every now and again the baby was looking down at me. I could just think about getting it to safety.
“It was terrible. When I swimming out I didn’t know what was going to happen – how I was going to help. The baby was handed to me. When it happened the father looked at me. He had to make a decision. He could have saved himself because he was out of the car – he went back in to his family.
“I couldn’t do anything else. The car went down. The whole lot went down. It was so fast. I went back to the shore. My girlfriend took the baby off me. I was so exhausted on the pier.”
The baby was taken to nearby Letterkenny Hospital where she was described as being currently in a stable condition.
“I just took the baby and we actually thought it was dead,” said Ms Knox. “It wasn’t making a sound. It was wearing little blue leggings and a red top. But then we heard a little cough and we realised it was alive. I wrapped it in my coat and the emergency services came along and took over.”
For the McGrotty family there was a great sense of gratitude that Mr Walsh succeeded in saving little Rionaghac-Ann. Mr McGrotty’s brother Jim on behalf of Seán’s partner Louise and the extended family praised and thanked Mr Walsh for rescuing the baby.
“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,” he said.
Joe Joyce of the RNLI said due to a local exercise there were two lifeboats and a tender in the area at the time of the tragedy but that such was the speed at which the car sank rescuers couldn’t get to the occupants in time to save them.
Mr Walsh – a former League of Ireland footballer, who played for Shelbourne, Bohemians, Finn Harps and Derry City – was taken to Letterkenny University Hospital where he was treated for cuts and is now on crutches. He had played a football game on Sunday afternoon with his current team, Fanad United.
He revealed how nurses at the hospital asked him if he would like to see the baby and he was reunited with the girl for a short time.
“That was very special and it is something I will never forget. I will never forget that but I will also never forget the faces of those people in that car.”