“Everybody has children and it has affected a lot of our crew. They have young families. You do the training but nothing prepares you for that.” - RNLI crew member Joe Joyce
Twenty-seven members of the RNLI were on the scene within minutes of the alarm being raised after the Audi SUV containing two adults, a teenager and three children slipped into the water at Buncrana pier.
Declan Magee reports from Buncrana
But despite the rapid response they were unable to save the five victims as the car submerged just seconds after entering the water.
The Lough Swilly RNLI team is based just yards from where the tragedy occurred and they had been involved in a training exercise with the Sligo-based rescue helicopter on Sunday afternoon.
Members of the lifeboat crews were on their way home from the exercise when they received the call to return to the pier. The emergency call had been placed by local man Frances Crawford at 7.12p.m.
RNLI volunteers were in the water within five minutes of the alarm and launched two lifeboats and a boarding boat.
Crew member Joe Joyce said members launched the boats with little regard for their own safety in an attempt to save the family.
“We didn’t wait for a full complement, we just put boats in the water quickly,” he said, speaking at the scene of the tragedy on Monday morning.
The boarding boat was first out, with one crew on board and he pulled the teenage girl from the water. The two lifeboats then each took one of the adults from the water and CPR was commenced. The victims were brought back to pier shore and passed over to emergency services.
The boot of the vehicle opened and rescuers were able to access the cabin.
A member of the team put on a snorkel and dived down and removed the bodies of the two boys from the car.
The occupants of the car managed to pass the baby girl out the window of the car to a bystander who had stripped to his underwear and entered the water, which would have been little more than 7 degrees celsius. “Their quick actions definitely saved that child’s life,” Mr Joyce said.
The car was in ten feet of water and rescuers were able to stand on its roof to locate it.
It drifted out about 60 yards after entering the water. “When the car went into the water the engine pulled it down, it floated for a while, there was an air bubble. Then the water filled up and it sank.”
Mr Joyce said there is speculation that failed electrics prevented the doors from opening. “But it is particularly difficult to open doors anyway until it is fully submerged,” he said.
Teams continued the search until they were sure everyone in the vehicle was accounted for.
Debris from the car floated down the lough and was recovered.
Mr Joyce said the teams did everything they could in the circumstances but the speed of the tragedy meant the victims could not be saved.
“If you were kitted up there (on the pier) you could not have done anything, it happened that quickly. It was very difficult...Nothing, all the training, nothing prepares you for this.”
The bodies were laid out on the pier and local priest Fr John Walsh administered the last rites, and a doctor attended to pronounced the victims dead.
Mr Joyce said he and his colleagues had not experienced an event like it in his 12 years in the service. Crew members will be offered counselling following their ordeal.
“There was a numbness from everybody on the pier. This was just mind blowing. Kids... everybody has children and it has affected a lot of our crew. They have young families. You do the training but nothing prepares you for that.”
Pictured: Joe Joyce of the RNLI