Funeral of Buncrana dead told of son’s last call to mother: ‘I am going to give you the biggest hug when I see you’
‘We are plunged in grief, even the heavens are crying’ mourners told at service for five drowning victims
Louise James (front left) carries a coffin out of the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty, Derry, after the funeral of the five people who were killed when their car slid off a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Mourners outside the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty, Derry, after the funeral of the five people who were killed when their car slid off a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Coffins are placed into hearses at the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty, Derry, after the funeral of the five people who were killed when their car slid off a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Mourners arrive at the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty, Derry, for the funeral of the five people killed when their car slid off a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Hearses arrive at the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty, Derry for the funeral of the five people who were killed when their car slid off a slipway in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Hearses arrive at the Holy Family chapel, Ballymagroarty in Derry for the funeral of the five people killed when their car slid off a slipway in Co Donegal. Photograph: PA
The coffins are carried into the Holy Family church, Ballymagroarty in Derry for the funeral of the five people who were killed when their car slid off a slipway in Co Donegal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The funerals of Seán McGrotty, his two sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his partner’s mother Ruth Daniels (59) and her daughter Jodie Lee Daniels (14) who drowned at at Buncrana Pier in Co Donegal on Sunday will take place today. Photograph: : Family Handout/PA Wire
Photographs of victims of the Buncrana pier tragedy in the Church of the Holy Family in Derry in preparation for today’s funeral service. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
A picture of the gate to the slipway at Buncrana Pier which has been closed. The gate was open on the day of the tragedy. Photograph: Peter Murtagh/The Irish Times
One of the boys who drowned in Buncrana told his mother on the phone shortly before the tragedy that he wanted to give her the “biggest, tightest hug” when he saw her next, the funeral has been told.
“We are plunged in grief, even the heavens are crying,” parish priest Fr Patrick O’Kane said, as the funeral for the five victims of the Buncrana pier tragedy began in Co Derry.
The five victims, Seán McGrotty, his two sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his partner’s mother Ruth Daniels (59) and his partner’s sister Jodie Lee Daniels (14) will be buried on Thursday after the funeral service at the Church of the Holy Family in Ballymagroarty in Derry.
The five family members died when their jeep slipped off the pier and entered the water just after 7pm on Sunday.
The couple’s only surviving child, four-month-old Rioghnach-Ann, was rescued from the sinking car by passerby Davitt Walsh, who was at the funeral.
Thousands of people turned out for the funeral in Derry to show sympathy and solidarity.
There were poignant scenes as the three white coffins of Mark and Evan McGrotty and Jodie Lee Daniels and the two brown coffins of Ruth Daniels and Seán McGrotty were carried into the church.
A large congregation gathered in the church for the ceremony with several hundred more standing outside.
During the funeral service Louise James, partner of Seán McGrotty and mother of Evan and Mark, read a poem and thanked Davitt Walsh for saving her daughter.
She said she would be eternally thankful that he had risked his life to save Mark and Evan’s sister.
She also thanked Davitt’s girlfriend Stephanie Knox, who helped revive the baby.
“We will be forever grateful. Thank you so, so much,” she said.
She was applauded by the congregation.
Fr O’Kane said Louise James was “most bereft of all”.
“For you have lost your family and our hearts go out to you especially.”
He recalled going to see Louise James after news of the tragedy broke.
“Grown men stood, red-eyed, in silence. Word could not come to my lips to put any shame on what I felt inside.”
“As I kissed her cheek I tasted the salt of her tears. ‘I am so, so sorry’ was all I could muster and I hoped it was enough”.
Mourners heard that the family has suffered other losses, with another of Ms James’s sons, Joshua, only living for 17 hours and Mr McGrotty’s younger sister, Ann, dying from cancer last July.
“You are just going to have to wait a little longer until you get that tight hug promised to you from Evan,” Fr O’Kane told Ms James.
Fr O’Kane spoke of how people struggled “to find words to speak the unspeakable” following the tragedy.
“This is a desert experience, barren of any comfort, as we search for an oasis of hope in this bleak landscape and as we struggle to find there any refreshing words of life and healing,” he said.
Fr O’Hagan said there was “one little sliver of light, one ray of hope bravely breaking through the dark clouds and it is this - little Rioghnach-Ann has been saved.
“As Louise says to me again and again, ‘She is my only reason to go on living.’”
Fr O’Hagan said that only half an hour before the tragedy Louise rang her family, who at the time were enjoying a day out in Buncrana, and spoke to Evan.
“When his mother phoned him at five to seven on Sunday evening as they sat on the pier to watch the sunset, he said: ‘Mammy I miss you so much. I am going to give you the biggest, tightest hug you ever got, when I see you again.’”
The parish priest spoke of “the self-sacrifice of Seán (McGrotty) on Sunday evening as he desperately tried to save his family.
“We saw that altruism again in the bravery of Davitt Walsh who saved the life of Rioghnach-Ann by swimming out to rescue her. Davitt, today we salute you as our hero.
“We had a meeting in our parochial house on Tuesday when Louise and her family met you to thank you for all you did, and also your girlfriend Stephanie Knox for her quick thinking as she warmed the baby’s little blue body back to life.
“Louise thanked you both sincerely from the bottom of her heart and for trying to save the lives of her sons. ‘Don’t blame yourself that you did not do more - we are so grateful for what you did,’ she says.”
Fr O’Hagan noted that Louise said “it could easily have been seven deaths, not five”, but for Davitt.
The priest praised Francis Crawford, who was at the scene and raised the alarm.
He also praised the local community and others who rallied behind the family.
“The kindness of strangers is another ray of light to lift us from our darkness,” said Fr O’Hagan.
Among those bringing the gifts to the altars were school friends of Evan, Mark and Jodi Lee.
Apart from family and many friends and neighbours of the Daniels and McGrotty families, the ceremony is attended by leading figures from the community in Derry and throughout Northern Ireland.
Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said: “These have been sombre days, not only in this city but right across the island.
“The banks of daffodils seemed to wave naively in the face of the horror that happened in a few minutes on an apparently harmless pier at Buncrana.”
Earlier on Thursday the gate to the slipway at Buncrana Pier was closed. The gate had been open on the day of the tragedy.
The burials will take place at the city cemetery, with Mr McGrotty and his two sons being buried in one plot, and Ms Daniels and her daughter in the next plot.
Hundreds of people have continued to visit the scene of the incident and a shrine of teddy bears and flowers has been built close to the pier.
Additional reporting: PA