A father whose car plunged off Irish pier to kill himself, his two children and two other relatives when he was three times the drink-drive limit died ‘through misadventure’, an inquest has heard.
Sean McGrotty, 46, was more than three times the legal drink-drive limit when his Audi Q7 jeep slid off a ‘slippery as ice’ slipway in Buncrana, Donegal, and sunk beneath the waters of the Lough Swilly.
With him in the car were his sons Mark, 11, and eight-year-old Evan, his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels, 57, and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie-Lee Tracey, all of whom died.
Today, a crew member from the RNLI, who dived to the vehicle when it was submerged three metres underwater, told an inquest into the deaths that there had been several other times that vehicles had slipped off the pier.
Sean McGrotty (back left) and his sons Mark, 12, and Evan, eight (pictured front) died when the Audi they were in plunged off a pier and into the water. Their baby sister Rionaghac-Ann (pictured with their mother Louise James, who was not involved in the crash) survived
Ms James’s mother Ruth Daniels, 57, (left) and Ms Daniels’s teenage daughter Jodie-Lee Tracey, 14, (right) also died
The hearing heard yesterday how the slipway was thick with algae and had there were no signs warning of potential danger.
John O’Raw told the hearing: ‘I am aware of other incidents that have occurred there. I am personally aware probably of three incidents over a 17-year career.’
During his evidence, Mr O’Raw – who reached the vehicle about 40 minutes about the 999 call – also told how none of the car doors would open.
Mr O’Raw, who has been snorkelling for 40 years, said: ‘I was unable to open the doors. The door handles were giving freely but not engaging with the locking mechanism.’
He described how the driver’s window – which was a third of the way down – was smashed but had bowed inwards, still intact, creating an obstacle.
Yesterday, the hearing heard how Mr McGrotty had managed to pass his four-month-old daughter Rionaghac-Ann through the window to Davitt Walsh – a bypasser who had swam out to the car – moments before it sank. She was the sole survivor of the incident.
Mr Walsh had tried to save one of the other children, whose hand he managed to grasp, but said that he seemed to ‘get stuck’ on something as he did.
Today, the coroner heard the vehicle was in a serviceable condition before the accident.
The 2006 vehicle had laminated windows and technical expert Garda Damien Mulkearns said that would have affected how the glass behaved after it was shattered.
Davitt Walsh, 28 (pictured today outside the inquest), rescued a four-month-old baby from a sinking car when five other members of her family drowned inside
Gerard Boyle, a technical expert representing Audi, said the control unit would have shut down once wet. He said the door would have been left in the same condition it was in when it hit the water – either locked or unlocked.
The hearing heard how the car doors could have been locked at the time of the accident because rescuers were not able to get the door open.
Doors can be set to lock when the car is driven, as an anti-theft measure, the inquest was told.
Mr Boyle said the firm did not ask to examine the car after the accident and could not comment on how its doors behaved during the incident.
He said if the door handle was used from the inside it should have opened. He was unable to comment on the vehicle in question.
But Mr Boyle said once the 4×4 lost friction with the slipway it would behave uncontrollably.
Handbrakes, footbrakes, gearing would not have made any difference, he said, adding: ‘The vehicle can only work within its capabilities.’
Today’s hearing also heard from one of the first officers at the scene, who said he had to get down on his hands and knees to stop him slipping on the algae.
Garda Seamus Callaghan told how he arrived to see a woman being given CPR and went down the slipway to help.
He said: ‘I had to get down on my knees to assist because it was just so slippy.’
The officer described how the area was then sealed off and the pier was cleared to give the fatalities some dignity.
The priest blessed each member of the family as they were taken from the water.
During yesterday’s hearing, consultant pathologist Dr Katrina Dillon told the coroner that Mr McGrotty’s blood alcohol level was 159ml per 100ml of blood when he died. The legal limit is 50ml.
But, on cross-examination, Dr Dillon said she could not say how that level of alcohol would have impaired Mr McGrotty, because it would depend on whether he was ‘habitual or accustomed.’
Hero: Mr Walsh was pictured cradling baby Rionaghac-Ann after he risked his life to save her
The tragic brothers are pictured with their sister, who survived when her father passed her out of the car window to a hero who jumped in the water to try and save them all
Ms James, who was at a hen do in Liverpool when the tragedy took place, is pictured with her baby daughter and son Evan
The hearing also heard from Mr Walsh, who saved the four-month-old girl.
He told how he desperately tried to rescue the newborn’s brother as the tragedy unfolded.
Mr Walsh had been walking near the pier when he saw the car sinking below the water.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he stripped down to his underwear, diving into the water and swimming towards the vehicle in an attempt to rescue those inside.
As he battled to avert tragedy, Mr Walsh managed to pull Rionaghac-Ann to safety, after Mr McGrotty passed her out through the smashed driver’s window.
Mr Walsh described how he had also tried to save one of the other children who was screaming for help inside the jeep.
Tragically, as he attempted to haul the boy to safety, the child’s foot got caught in the car. Mr Walsh was then forced to let go of the boy’s hand to ensure he was also not pulled under.
It is not known which of the two boys he was trying to save.
Yesterday’s hearing also heard from Garda Sergeant Mark Traynor, who said the algae was thick and very slippy on the pier.
Later, in evidence, John McLaughlin, a director at Donegal County Council, admitted no signs had been installed warning the slipway could be slippery.
He said the pier was rarely used in winter and was usually only cleaned to facilitate the summer ferry.
The jury inquest, which will hear evidence from 12 witnesses, is expected to last two days.
The family died when the car slid off Buncrana Pier and into the waters of Lough Swilly in Donegal (pictured) on March 20 last year