Northern Ireland

Buncrana tragedy: Mother spoke to son moments before family drowned

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Media captionFr Paddy O'Kane (centre) said "even the heavens are crying" after the family's deaths, as BBC News NI's Keiron Tourish reports

A woman whose family drowned off the Irish coast spoke to her youngest son shortly before the tragedy on Sunday, a priest at their funeral has said.

Ruth Daniels, 57, her daughter Jodie Lee, 14, Sean McGrotty, 49, and his sons Mark, 12, and Evan, eight, died when their car left Buncrana pier.

They were the mother, sister, partner and two sons of Louise James. The only survivor was her baby girl.

Ms James said the loss of her family had "broken hearts beyond repair".

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Image caption The victims were, from left, Mark McGrotty, 12, and Evan McGrotty, 8, Sean McGrotty, 49, Ruth Daniels, 57, and Jodie Lee Daniels, 14

Four-month old Rionaghac-Ann was rescued from the water by passer-by Davitt Walsh after the car slipped into the water on Sunday.

Hundreds of mourners lined streets in Londonderry as hearses carrying the five victims made their way to Holy Family Church, Ballymagroarty, in the city for the funeral service.

Fr Paddy O'Kane, the family's priest, told those attending the service that Ms James, who was returning from a trip to England, had called Evan on Sunday evening as the family sat in the car on the County Donegal pier to watch the sunset.

Image caption Five hearses carrying the victims' coffins arrived at Holy Family Church for the funeral service

"[Evan] said: 'Mammy, I miss you so much. I am going to give you the biggest, tightest, hug you ever got when I see you again,'" Fr O'Kane said.

He added that people were "bewildered by the intensity of this grief" the family were feeling after the deaths.

"We are plunged in grief - even the heavens are crying," he said.

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Image caption Hundreds of mourners joined the McGrotty and Daniels families as they walked to the church

"Five beautiful people have been taken tragically from our midst, five people whom we loved.

"Not just this family, this community, this country, but also people from all over the world are united with us in grief."

But Fr O'Kane said there was "one ray of hope bravely breaking through the dark clouds".

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Image caption Louise James (front left) carried the coffin of one of her sons from the church

He praised the "altruism in the bravery" of Mr Walsh, who dived into the lough and swam to the family in their car before returning to the pier with Rionaghac-Ann.

"Davitt, today we salute you as our hero," Fr O'Kane said.

Ms James spoke at the funeral to publicly thank him for saving her baby.

"We will be eternally grateful to Davitt Walsh and his girlfriend Stephanie Knox," she said.

Image copyright Courtesy of Derry News
Image caption Davitt Walsh met baby Rionaghac-Ann again on Tuesday after he rescued her moments before the family's car sank two days earlier

"For, without fear for [your] own life and safety, you entered Lough Swilly to save my Rionaghac-Ann, and I will be forever grateful to you.

"Thank you so, so much."

Ms James had an emotional first meeting with Mr Walsh on Tuesday.

Fr O'Kane told mourners how she had embraced Mr Walsh and thanked him "from the bottom of her heart" for also trying to save her sons.

"'It could easily have been seven deaths, not five,' Louise added, before passing the baby to Davitt to hold," Fr O'Kane said.

"She opened her beautiful blue eyes, smiled up at him and had a big yawn."

Earlier this week, Jim McGrotty, a brother of Sean, praised Mr Walsh, saying he was "a hero in this family's eyes".

And at the funeral service he said his brother's efforts to save his family had been the ultimate display of his love for them.

"Sean's love for his family was proven, if proof was ever needed, with his selfless actions on last Sunday evening," he said.

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Image caption People lined the streets of Derry as the funeral procession passed

"Goodbye, bro, I will see you later."

Principals of the schools the young victims attended paid tribute to them at the service.

Evan was described by as a "beautiful, bright and bubbly wee boy", while Mark was "a teacher's dream, polite and ambitious", the head of St Eithne's Primary School said.

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Media captionFr Paddy O'Kane tells of mother's meeting with the man who rescued her daughter

Jodie Lee's principal Marie Lindsay, of St Mary's College in Derry, said she was a "beautiful girl on the outside".

"But it was her inner beauty that packed a lifetime of love into 14 short years," she added.

Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers attended the funeral and were joined by representatives of the Irish president and prime minister.

Image copyright Family photo
Image caption Sean McGrotty with his partner Louise, holding their baby Rionaghac-Ann, and with sons Mark (right) and Evan

First Minister Arlene Foster visited the family home on Thursday morning with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and said it was "incredible" to meet Ms James.

"This is an unspeakable tragedy, yet somehow, from somewhere, she is finding the strength to be so composed, to speak with us, to tell us how she'd spoken to the children just before they died," Mrs Foster said.

"I hope she continues to find that strength in the days to come because we all know, once the funeral is over, that the difficult days will begin."

Hundreds of people in Derry have signed books of condolence for the family.

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Image caption People left floral tributes at Buncrana pier after hearing of the family's deaths

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