The scene at Buncrana Pier on the day after the the tragedy
The door handles of the car in which five members of the one family died in the Buncrana pier tragedy would not open when a RNLI rescuer tried to access the submerged vehicle, the inquest into their deaths has heard.
Sean McGrotty (49), his sons Evan (8) and Mark (12); the boy's grandmother Ruth Daniels (57) and her daughter Jodie Lee Tracey (14), all died when the Audi Q7 car they were in slid off a slipway into Lough Swilly at Buncrana on March 20th last year.
The inquest into the deaths heard today that the driver’s window that had been smashed by Sean McGrotty, the driver of the car, had remained intact and was hanging inside the vehicle when rescuers got to it.
RNLI member John O’Raw was the first person to reach the submerged Audi Q7. The inquest heard that members of the RNLI had launched and recovered the first casualty within seven minutes of receiving the call to attend the scene. He had been on exercise during the day and was at home in Buncrana when his bleeper went at 7.13pm.
Mr O'Raw arrived at the pier at 7.20 pm and at that stage members of the RNLI were in dry gear on the pier and were attempting to resuscitate the first casualty that was recovered. He went home to get scuba gear and the entered the water at 7.55pm. He said diving is not an RNLI function and he made the decision to undertake the dive himself using his own equipment, without any RNLI direction.
The tailgate of the car was open but submerged and two members of RNLI stood on the roof of the car, which was in about three metres of water, to give him support. He said he tried three doors of the car but they would not open when he tried the handles. The handles moved freely but the locking system did not engage, he said.
The glass on the driver's door was fractured but still intact. When he first saw the glass he said he did not understand what he was looking at. The window was broken inwards, was flapping inside the car, was mostly intact and was in a bowl shape. “I couldn't understand what I was seeing,” he said.
He looked in the window and could see that there was no one in the front seats of the car but visibility was limited and he couldn't see into the back.
Other incidents on slipway
Under cross examination it was put to him that there had been other incidents involving vehicles getting into trouble on the slipway. He said he was aware of three incidents in 17 or 18 years.
Mr O’Raw said the passenger window was intact when he came to the vehicle but it was cracked on the slipway in an attempt to put a rope through it. He said that as the tailgate was open, water pressure should not have been an issue in opening the doors.
Garda Seamus Callaghan, one of the first gardaí at the scene, said the pier was extremely slippy and he had to go on his hands and knees to get any grip as he helped RNLI members with the recovery of Ruth Daniels.
He said five people were taken from the water and were declared dead. The bodies were laid on the pier and covered in blankets and a local priest arrived and blessed the bodies and said prayers.
Garda Damien Mulkearns, the Donegal Garda division public service vehicle inspector, said that the doors of the car opened both internally and externally when he inspected the car the next day at a vehicle storage yard where it had been taken.
He said the vehicle was in a serviceable pre-accident condition.
Under cross examination he said any locking mechanism has both mechanical and electrical components and an electrical circuit becomes unpredictable when immersed in water.
Garda Mulkearns said the glass on the driver’s door was laminated and while it was shattered, the lamination was holding it together and it was tilting inwards to the cabin.
He said while laminated glass is standard in windscreen and rear windows, not every vehicle has laminated side windows.
The inquest continues.