Buncrana: What should have been perfect family day out turned into heartbreak

Neighbours and teachers recall a lovely, open and happy family

Tyre tracks on the slipway at Buncrana pier where the five people died. Photograph: Justin Kernoghan

Tyre tracks on the slipway at Buncrana pier where the five people died. Photograph: Justin Kernoghan

 

It should have been a perfect day. A nice gesture by Seán – to bring his partner Louise’s mother, Ruth, out for Sunday lunch on St Patrick’s weekend. What with Louise being off in Liverpool for a hen party.

Jodie Lee, Ruth Daniels’ teenage daughter, would come too. And so would Seán and Louise’s children, Mark (12), Evan (8) and their four-month-old sister Rionaghac-Ann.

But it ended in a tragedy that has numbed Buncrana, Donegal’s seaside playground for many who live in Derry, and stunned the residents of Shantallow, the Derry estate where Ruth Daniels lived.

Seán McGrotty was from Creggan but he and Louise lived in Hazelbank, another part of Derry. Seán worked in windows.

On Sunday, he went to Ruth’s home to start the Sunday treat and everyone got into his big Audi for the trip over to Buncrana.

“They’re great neighbours,” said Dessie Mapp whose front door is just a few metres from Ruth’s.

Many of the residents of Shantallow are of modest means. Unemployment is high.

‘Very close’

Ruth Daniels worked at times as a cleaner. Her house, at 41 Ederowen Park, is well kept. It is the only one whose front facade is painted white. Her next-door neighbour but one is her sister Anne.

“They’re very, very close,” said Mapp. “I’ve been here 38 years, since it was built, and you wouldn’t get better neighbours. If you were stuck for anything, they were always there. You couldn’t fault them for anything.”

The road from Derry to Buncrana is short and, before you know it, it’s hugging the side of Lough Swilly – the Swilly, as it’s known locally.

The route winds past sandy beaches, a golf course and leads people into the town. The area is a great place for children to come to.

Fr Aidan Mullen has only been parish priest of St Joseph’s Shantallow for a short time but yesterday morning he got to know something of 14-year-old Jodie Daniels.

“It’s actually Jodie Lee,” he said, “that’s her Christian name.”

Fr Aidan went up to St Therese’s primary school, a prim, colourful and lively place a few hundred meters from Ederowen Park, and heard how Jodie Lee had been a star pupil in her day.

“Jodie Lee was an absolute darling,” remembered head teacher Rosemary Walsh. “You know, just one of those girls. She participated in everything; [she was] just a happy, happy girl. ”

There was no formal announcement at assembly because no one was 100 per cent sure what had happened and to whom.

But in the close-knit community that is Shantallow, where news travels fast, everyone knew at least some of what had happened the evening before in Buncrana.

So in assembly, they said prayers for the family.

“And we prayed for Louise. How is she going to cope?” Ms Walsh’s voice runs out of things to say.

Emotions are not far below the surface as she tries to articulate what she and her teaching colleagues feel at the loss of Jodie Lee. And she’s well aware of it.

“What do you say?”

As a mother, Ruth Daniels was very much involved in the school. She’s remembered for her big blond hair and wide smile with two rows of gleaming white teeth and her warmth.

Ms Walsh remembers her for her hugs: whenever she came to the school to help out, which was often, things began first with a big hug.

And then it was off to the library, or somewhere else, helping a teacher shepherd the pupils along.

“Ruth was an open book,” said Ms Walsh. “What you saw was what you got and she was always smiling.”

The pier at Buncrana is large, modern and looks well run. It is also a workplace with several trawlers in evidence.

Patrick Beattie who lives in Lisfannon, from where he has a perfect view of the harbour, is leaning over a rail, peering down at the end of the slipway.

“That’s where it all kicked off,” he says, indicating a particular spot.

He points to two white patches just below the lapping water line – patches visible because the light veneer of wispy green weed has been scuffed off. Removed, probably, by tyres that just would not, could not, grip.

There are now five places at the pier where yesterday the steady stream of disbelieving, saddened people came to look, to commune with place and with others, and to leave flowers.

The tributes are from families and children. Amid one cluster of blooms are included two teddy bears and references to two new angels in heaven.

There is a large car park before the pier proper, with cars parked there as well as on the pier itself. The pier is modern with a good flat concrete surface.

Seaweed

On all sides, there are rails that are either waist-high or 6ins high, the ones designed to stop cars going over.

But the slipway is different. It too is concrete and has a large, galvanised metal gate which may be used to close it from the pier. It is open, seemingly most of the time, and the slipway leads very visibly and obviously down to the water.

As it leaves the pier, the slipway is perhaps the width of four cars. As it progresses towards the water, it widens, fanning out to a width of perhaps 100ft.

Close to the marking for full tide, there is seaweed – first feathery brown weed, the sort that dries shiny in the sun, and then the greeny whispy kind.

Patrick Beattie looks down on the water lapping against the slipway.

“They say it’s the best place to see the sunset,” he says, pointing out across the Swilly to some hills, “It goes down just behind those.”

On Sunday at around 7pm, perhaps to round off what was probably a lovely day out, the family in the Audi were on the slipway, far down it, the vehicle sitting on the weed and with that beautiful view across the water.

As it slid and Seán struggled frantically to stop, turn and get out of danger, tragedy unfolded – slowly at first and then with fatal, unstoppable rapidity.

Patrick says that Davitt Walsh from Creeslough was the man who stripped off to his underpants and plunged in, saving the baby’s life.

But Seán, his mother-in-law Ruth, her daughter Jodie Lee, and Louise and Seán’s sons, Evan and Mark, who had muscular dystrophy, sank with the car, its nose dipping down first, Seán shouting from inside.

It only took seconds.

As evening drew in last night, a steady stream of people came to the pier.

At the larger collection of bouquets, about 25, a mother leant down to read.

“Are these here for Evan?” asked the little boy with her.

“Yes,” she said.