A man who dived into freezing water to save the life of a baby girl as five members of her family were drowning in their car has revealed the heart-wrenching moment another child was pulled from his grasp.
Davitt Walsh stripped to his underwear and risked his own life to swim 40 metres out into the sea to reach the 4×4 after it slipped off a harbour at Buncrana in County Donegal, north-west Ireland, yesterday evening.
Mother-of-six Ruth Daniels, 57, her 15-year-old daughter Jodie-Lee, son-in-law Sean McGrotty, 46, and his two sons, 12-year-old Mark and Evan, eight, all died when their Audi Q7 ‘slipped on algae’ while turning on the pier’s slipway.
But incredibly, Mr McGrotty’s four-month-old daughter Rionaghac-Ann survived when he managed to get her through the sinking window and into the arms of brave Mr Walsh. Mr Walsh, a 29-year-old footballer, also came close to rescuing one of the two young boys but the child was ‘pulled away’.
Mother Louise James, 35, was apparently away at a hen party in Liverpool when her mother, teenage sister, partner and three children visited the beauty spot.
She has now been reunited with her daughter and told her priest: ‘I have lost everyone, except little Rionaghac-Ann – Rionaghac-Ann is my reason to go on.’
Relatives of the victims today expressed their gratitude to Mr Walsh as they described how they were ‘numbed’ by what had happened.
Three of those in the car apparently tried to swim to safety after breaking a window and climbing out, but did not make it because of the freezing water and their heavy clothes. The group, from the Galliagh area of Derry, had crossed into Ireland to enjoy the good weather yesterday.
Mr Walsh, from the village of Kerrykeel, County Donegal, had been driving away with his girlfriend, Stephanie Knox, after a walk at the pier when he saw the car sinking. The pair ran down to the slip-way where a by-stander asked them to swim out to try and help.
Mr Walsh said ‘It all happened so quickly. I asked if there were currents and the man said there was. I just stripped down to my underwear and swam out. When I got to the car my mind was racing. The man, who was in the driver’s seat, smashed the window.
‘I could hear them all screaming inside the car. It’s so hard to describe. I can’t describe how I was feeling. I will never forget those screams. The man said “save the baby”. He stayed in the car with his family. He could have saved himself but he decided to stay with his family.
‘I had a grip of another boy, I think he was about 12 years old but he was pulled away from me somehow. When I think about it now, I simply could not have held him up as well and managed to swim away.’
As soon as Mr Walsh lifted the infant over his head, the car filled up and became submerged in the water. He held the baby in the air as he swam back to land, where Miss Knox took the baby and wrapped her in her coat.
She said: ‘I just took the baby and we actually thought it was dead. It wasn’t making a sound. It was wearing little blue leggings and a red top. But then we heard a little cough and we released it was alive. I wrapped it in my coat and the emergency services came along and took over.’
Mr Walsh, who played Derry City and the Bohemians, said he is racked with guilt that he could not save any other members of the family.
‘I just couldn’t get the doors open and neither could they,’ he said. ‘The electrics must have went. I was pulling and I was telling them they had to get out of the car quickly but they couldn’t. I was telling them it was going to go down but they just couldn’t get out.
‘I just wanted to get them all out but there was nothing I could do. It all just happened so quickly.’
Mr Walsh was taken to hospital after the rescue and treated for shock and cuts to his feet. He was briefly reunited with the baby and Ms James.
‘That was very special and it is something I will never forget. I will never forget that but I will also never forget the faces of those people in that car,’ he said.
Ms James, who is the mother of Mark and Evan and the daughter of Ms Daniels, is believed to have been on a ‘hen weekend’ in Liverpool at the time of the tragedy – although she spoke to the others just half an hour before they died.
Eight-year-old Evan suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a muscle-wasting disease which meant he could not play sport and was likely to be confined to a wheelchair.
Ms James has previously led campaigning and fundraising initiatives for the condition in a bid to improve treatment for children with DMD from Northern Ireland.
The family’s parish priest, Father Paddy O’Kane of the Holy Family Church, spent this morning comforting the bereaved relatives at their home.
‘I am 43 years a priest and nothing compares to this,’ he said. ‘This is way beyond anything in my wildest imagination. This is the worst thing I have ever had.
‘When I went up there this morning people were just standing around – men were just standing looking at the ground not knowing what to say.