Buncrana tragedy: Driver three times over alcohol limit, inquest told

Eyewitness tells inquest of hearing screams as car sank

 

The driver of a car that slipped off Buncrana pier with the loss of five lives last year was more than three times over the drink driving limit, an inquest in Co Donegal heard on Wednesday.

Coroner Dr Denis McCauley is conducting inquests into the deaths of Sean McGrotty (49), his sons Mark (12), and Evan (8), his mother in law Ruth Daniels (59) and Ruth’s daughter Jodie Lee Daniels (14).

They died when the car Mr McGrotty was driving went into the water at Buncrana pier on Sunday, March 20th, 2016.

Mr McGrotty lived with his partner Louise James and their children at St Eithne’s Park in the Ballymagroarty area of Derry.

A doctor who conducted the postmortem into the five deaths said that there were indications of “elements of intoxication” in the blood and urine of Mr McGrotty.

Dr Katrina Dillon, a consultant pathhologist at Letterkenny hospital, said he had 159 milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of blood and 222 milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of urine.

The drink driving limit in the Republic is 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood and 67mg of alcohol per 100ml of urine, which would indicate Mr McGrotty was more than three times over the drink driving limit.

Dr Dillon could not say whether the level of alcohol in Mr McGrotty’s system had impaired his driving. That would depend on a number of factors including whether he was a habitual drinker, she added.

Bad feeling

She said Mr McGrotty also suffered cuts, lacerations and abrasions as a result of the accident.

Louise James attends a ceremony at Buncrana front shore last March. File photograph: Trevor McBride.
Louise James attends a ceremony at Buncrana front shore last March. File photograph: Trevor McBride.

The inquest heard earlier how the woman who lost her partner, her two sons, her mother and her sister in the drowning disaster got a “bad feeling” at the time of the tragedy.

The couple’s baby, Rioghnach-Ann, was rescued by Kerrykeel man Davitt Walsh who was in Buncrana on the evening of March 20th with his girlfriend Stephanie Knox.

Ms James told the inquest that at around the time of the tragedy she became alarmed and had a “bad feeling” that something was wrong.

“I got a feeling something was not right - I don’t know why,” she said in her deposition.

She was in England at the time, about to board a plane home from a hen party with friends. But at 7.25 pm she became anxious. She rang her partner and her sister Jodie Lee but got no reply.

She then rang her brother Nathan in Derry and asked was her mother, Ruth Daniels, home. He told her she was not. She then rang her brother Joshua who asked had she been reading social media. She said no.

He was able to tell her of an accident in Buncrana although he did not have the details of the victims.

It was about this time that the five members of her family drowned in the calm waters of Lough Swilly on what was described as a “beautiful” calm evening.

Just half an hour earlier at 6.55 pm, Ms James said she spoke by phone to her sister, Ruth Lee, and her sons Mark and Evan, who were enjoying an evening out in Buncrana. She told them she would see them later than night.

Davitt Walsh, who swam out into in an effort to save six occupants of an Audi Q7 that plunged off a pier, arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Davitt Walsh, who swam out into in an effort to save six occupants of an Audi Q7 that plunged off a pier, arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

It wasn’t until she landed in Belfast that she was informed of the terrible extent of the tragedy.

Ms James also told the inquest how she was brought to Letterkenny Hospital to identify her family members.

‘Shouting and screaming’

Mr Walsh told the inquest how he drove to the pier with his girlfriend at the time Ms Knox to enjoy the view. They noticed an Audi Q7 SUV which appeared to have just slipped into the water.

He said that at the slipway he could hear “shouting and screaming coming from the car”. His girlfriend said to him, “Go do something, Davitt.”

He stripped down to his underpants and swam out to the vehicle. He said by that stage Mr McGrotty had broken the front driver’s window with his elbow.

Mr Walsh shouted to Mr McGrotty, “You need to get everybody out of the car.”

He said Mr McGrotty sat on the ledge of the window with his feet in the car and his head and shoulders out of the vehicle. He handed over the baby to Mr Walsh and said to him “save the baby” or “save our baby”.

He described how a “wee boy” came from the back seat and tried to escape. He tried to grab his arm but as water rushed into the car, he (Mr Walsh) was being sucked into the vehicle and he was unable to hold on. He said the water “was like a massive wave rushing into the car”.

Mr Walsh said the vehicle was about 25 metres from the pier at that stage. Shortly after he rescued the baby, the car sank into the water. He described how he used the back stroke to swim back with Rioghnach-Ann.

At the pier, he passed the baby to Ms Knox. He said she slipped on the algae and had difficulty getting up the slipway. He dug his feet into cracks in the concrete and pushed her up the slipway.

He said that when he finally got to the top he was so exhausted that he could hardly breathe. He suffered grazes and cuts to his feet and was taken to Letterkenny Hospital for treatment and examination.

‘Phone the coastguard’

Mr Walsh said that as a man familiar with the sea, piers and harbours he was conscious of the dangers of algae, but that a stranger would not be so aware.

Buncrana man Francis Crawford said he went out for a Sunday drive with this wife Kay, arriving at the slipway about 7.08 or 7.09 pm. He told the inquest how he observed Mr McGrotty’s Audi at the bottom of the slipway. At that stage the water was about four inches up along the wheels of the vehicle.

He called to the driver, Mr McGrotty, “Are you okay?”

The driver shouted back, “Phone the coastguard.” He said Mr McGrotty kept shouting in a panicked voice, “Phone the coastguard.”

Francis Crawford arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Francis Crawford arrives at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Crawford said he rang 999 and got through to coastguard to issue the alert. He said he spoke with urgency and clarity.

As the driver continued to appeal for help and as the car drifted further into Lough Swilly, Mr Crawford shouted to him help was on the way.

He said he could hear children in the car “squealing and roaring crying”

He said at that stage Mr Walsh and his girlfriend Ms Knox had arrived at the scene. He asked Mr Walsh could he swim. Mr Crawford said Mr Walsh stripped down to his underwear and went into the water. He said his girlfriend told him to be careful.

Mr Crawford said the car appeared to slowly move out into the water where it bobbed up and down. Eventually the nose of the car tilted and shortly afterwards the car sank.

“The car was floating, bobbing in the water, 10 to 15 yards from the slipway, and slowly floating, bobbing off to the right of the slipway.

“I could still hear people and the child screaming from the car, all the time the car must have been taking on water.

“I was hoping that the emergency services would arrive and the car would not go down.”

He added: “I could hear sirens, the nose of the car dipped...and the car sank to the bottom.”

He then described how three bodies surfaced, one an adult who appeared to be trying to swim. Mr Crawford said there was no movement from the other two bodies.

Shortly thereafter the RNLI got a boat out onto the water and started bringing in the bodies. Attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful.

The emergency services called after the car plunged off the pier, arrived within 12 minutes, Mr Crawford said.

Algae was ‘treacherous’

He said the algae at the bottom of the slipway was “treacherous to walk on and as slippery as ice”.

He estimated the car was in the water for about 12 minutes before it sank.

Kay Crawford, corroborating her husband’s evidence, described how the tide which was going out dragged the car away from the pier.

She said that when Mr Walsh swam in with the Rioghnach-Ann that the baby’s clothes were soaked but her head was dry. She was confident at that stage that the baby would survive. She also told how the baby was brought to Ms Knox’s car where its heater was used to warm the child. Rioghnach-Ann was then brought to Letterkenny Hospital.

Ms Crawford said the water appeared to be half way up the wheels of the Audi when she first noticed the vehicle.

Local Garda Sgt Traynor described how when gardaí arrived at the scene the car was completely submerged. He also told how the rescue services brought ashore the bodies and how attempts were made at resuscitation.

He said he was aware of only one lifebuoy present at the scene on the evening of the tragedy.

Sgt Traynor said there was a gate in place above the slipway and vehicles now could only use the slipway with special permission.

He also understood there was new signage at the pier pointing to the dangers of the area.– Additional reporting PA