The man who rescued a baby from a car during the Buncrana Pier tragedy has spoken of how he tried to help a second child escape from the vehicle just before it sank.
The inquest into the deaths of five people who drowned after their car entered Lough Swilly from the pier slipway and became submerged today (Tuesday) heard heartbreaking testimony from the man who rescued the only survivor of the tragedy.
Davitt Walsh’s actions on Sunday, March 20, 2016 - when he swam out and rescued baby Riognach-Ann - were described as brave and extraordinary during this morning’s hearing at the Lake of Shadows Hotel in the seaside town.
Donegal Coroner, Dr. Denis McCauley, who opened the Inquest into the deaths of Sean McGrotty, his two sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his partner’s mother, Ruth Daniels, and her daughter, Jodie-Lee Tracey (14), earlier described Mr Walsh’s testimony as the most harrowing he had ever heard.
The Donegal man, in a deposition, related how he had been playing a soccer match with Fanad United against Letterkenny Rovers in Letterkenny earlier that day and, then, later decided to go with his then partner, Stephanie Knox, to Buncrana because the weather was good.
He said the couple had been planning to get ice cream in the town but, because there were no parking spaces, they were going to drive on.
“I decided to go to the pier just for a look,” he said. “I stopped around the middle of the slipway and we got out of the car and Stephanie took a ‘selfie’ of us with Lough Swilly in the background.”
Mr Walsh said there was nobody else on the slipway at the time and he noticed about eight feet of green algae at the bottom of the slipway.
“I made a point to stay away from it,” he continued.
The couple then got back into their car and drove to the end of the pier and saw at least two other vehicles parked on the pier, with a couple of men fishing off the end of the pier at the time.
The couple had parked up for about five minutes and then decided to leave.
“As I was driving past the slipway, Stephanie noticed a car in the water and said, ‘Davitt, go down quick’. I stopped, parked about half way down the slipway. I saw a black seven seater roughly 20 metres from the slipway, bobbing in the water. The driver side was facing me.”
He said Francis Crawford and his wife, Kay, were on the slipway at the time.
“I got out and I heard screaming and shouting coming from the car in the water,” he said. Mr Walsh gave his girlfriend his phone to ring the emergency number.
“Stephanie said to me, ‘Go do something, go do something, Davitt’.”
Mr Walsh stripped and swam out to the car and witnessed Sean McGrotty, who was driving, use his elbow to smash the driver side door window.
“I shouted to the driver, ‘you need to get everybody out of the car’. The father on the driver’s side passed me out the baby.”
Mr Walsh related how Sean McGrotty then sat on the window ledge with his hands on the roof and his head and shoulders outside the vehicle.
He later told the inquest in person: “He must have been looking around for more help but there was no more help.”
“I saw a young boy from inside the car try to climb out past the father,” Mr Walsh said in his deposition. “I reached in and grabbed the wee boy who was trying to climb out but he seemed to be stuck on something.”
He added later that he had grabbed the boy by the hand but that the water which had been seeping into the vehicle soon began gushing into the open window of the vehicle which then sank.
He said that, as the water rushed in, he was forced to let go of the vehicle as he and the baby were in danger and being pulled down along with it.
“I was kicking as hard as I could, but was getting sucked into the water,” he said. “It was like a massive wave of water rushing into the car.”
He said Mr. McGrotty, moments before the vehicle sank, “looked at me and said, ‘Save the baby or save my baby’.”
Davitt said he swam back using the back stroke as it was the safest way to keep the baby out of the water.
He said he got to the slipway where Stephanie was waiting and he passed her the baby.
Mr Walsh later described how he injured his feet as his partner had slipped and fallen to her knees with the baby and he had to wedge his feet into cracks on the slipway in order to help get them to the pier.
He then collapsed, exhausted and freezing cold, on the slipway and later got to his car where Stephanie was trying to keep the baby warm.
Coronor Dr McCauley said: “I don’t think I have heard anything as harrowing as that. Thank you for all the help you gave them.”
In an answer to a question from the Coroner, Mr. Walsh estimated that the swim back from the car had been around 25 metres and was less going out as the car was drifting away from the pier.
He also said that, when he arrived, the driver side was around three quarters the way up, prior to Mr McGrotty smashing through it.
He said the car at this stage was still largely out of the water as he was looking up to him from the water and it was a “full reach” to get the baby, but added that the car was at a tilt by this stage, with the front a lot more submerged.
In answer to further questions Mr Walsh said that he would have known the danger of algae on slipways having grown up around piers, whereas “a stranger from a different part of the world would not know about the dangers of algae.”
He also related how he fell on the slippery algae on that evening and “was lucky not to have cracked my head” at the scene.
Along with other eyewitnesses who gave evidence earlier today, Mr Walsh said it would be quite common for people to drive onto the slipway at Buncrana Pier as he and others had done that day as well.
Mr Walsh was told by Keith O’Grady, a barrister instructed by Declan Hegarty of Allianz Insurance, the insurers of the late Mr McGrotty: “Your actions were extraordinary.”
The Coroner also told him: “Thank you very much. You said you just went down to the pier for a look. I’m glad you did.”