A woman who helped save a baby after a family car slipped off a pier and killed five people is reportedly suing the estate of the dead driver for loss of earnings.
Sean McGrotty, 49, was more than three times over the legal drink-drive limit when his Audi Q7 jeep slid off the slipway in Buncrana, Donegal, plunging into the Lough Swilly in March 2016.
With him in the 4×4 were his sons Mark, 11, Evan, eight, mother-in-law Ruth Daniels, 57, and her 14-year-old daughter Jodie-Lee Tracey, all of whom died.
Stephanie Knox and her then-partner Davitt Walsh witnessed the tragic plunge and together saved four-month-old Rioghnach-Ann, the only survivor.
Hero Davitt swam out to rescue the baby girl while Stephanie, a cardiac physiologist, warmed her up in her car.
Stephanie Knox and her then-partner Davitt Knox witnessed the tragic plunge and together saved four-month-old Rioghnach-Ann, the only survivor
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
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
Two years on the from disaster, McGrotty’s 86-year-old father, Noel, said he has received a legal notice from Ms Knox explaining her intention to claim from McGrotty’s estate.
Speaking from his home, Noel McGrotty said he was confused after being sent a private delivery and had to sign for it.
He added, according to Derry Now: ‘It was a big envelope full of legal documents – hard for the ordinary man in the street to understand,’ he said.
‘Then I saw the name Knox and realised it was from the girl that took the baby when she was brought out of the water that day.’
But he said he was unsure why he was sent the documents because he is not the executor of his late son’s estate.
Ms Knox, however, told MailOnline she thought she was suing the council and an insurance company ‘like everyone else is doing’.
She added: ‘This has tipped me over the edge. I can’t handle this anymore to be honest.’
She also told the Irish Independent that she is ‘under so much stress and heartache’ and would ‘love it to just blow over’.
‘I know what they’re [the family] going through is hard,’ she added.
Ms Knox’s sister Laura said in a Facebook post she would ‘never be as spiteful to claim off an 86-year-old man’ and stressed that she thought she was suing Donegal County Council.
Laura explained: ‘Stephanie was informed by the Gardai [police] that people who were on the pier that day were claiming so Stephanie went to her solicitor for advice.
Louise James (pictured) has filed High Court proceedings against Donegal County Council over the Buncrana pier tragedy in which her partner, two sons, sister and mother died
Louise James (pictured centre) is pictured leaving the Lake of Shadows Hotel in Buncrana, where she said her heart was shattered by her family’s deaths
‘Stephanie is not the type of person that people are making her out to be all over Facebook and anyone who actually knows her would know this.’
She added: ‘She was under the impression that the claim was against the Donegal council and due to the same reason that the family were claiming for – algae being on the slipway and other reasons.
‘That day has ruined her life forever witnessing 5 people die in front of her and her life will never be the same.
‘So before you go and give your opinion think of what she may already be going through as it is and that by giving your opinion about something you know nothing about, the knock on affect that it may have.’
Speaking after the horrific tragedy, Ms Knox described what she saw.
‘It was very traumatic and difficult to stand on the pier and to watch what was unfolding in front of me,’ she said.
‘I saw Davitt swimming out to get the baby. I was afraid for his life as well as for the lives of the people in the car.
‘When I saw the car sinking I was afraid that Davitt would dive under the water to try to help the people in the car.
I shouted at him, “Davitt come back, Davitt come back”.
‘I could see he was struggling and that he was tiring fast as he held the baby really high up in the air. Just before the car sank there was no noise, no screams, you could hear a pin drop on the pier. I went down the slipway and Davitt handed the baby over to me.
‘I went off the slipway and went into the water up to my waist. I didn’t want to go into the water any further in case no-one would get out of the water. I then crawled up the slipway with the baby in my arms. She was not crying and I thought that she was dead.
‘I thought I was going to have to do CPR on the baby and then I heard the smallest of coughs coming from the baby.
‘It was the smallest faintest cough I have ever heard and I will never forget it. That was the moment when I realised Davitt had done so well.’
An inquest in November 2017 concluded Mr McGrotty died by misadventure.
It later came to light his partner, Louise James, was suing Donegal County Council after claiming the slipway at the pier should have been closed to the public.
High Court proceedings were filed under her name on June 9 this year in relation to the fateful incident, reports the Irish Daily Star.
Ms James (pictured), who was at a hen do in Liverpool when the tragedy took place, is pictured with her baby daughter who survived and son Evan, who passed away
Ms James’s mother Ruth Daniels, 57, (left) and Ms Daniels’s teenage daughter Jodie-Lee Tracey, 14, (right) also died
But legal experts are skeptical she will have a case, after this week’s inquest at Donegal Coroner’s Court revealed he was over three times the legal alcohol limit when he plunged to his death.
A lawyer told the newspaper: ‘The fact that he, as the driver of the car which went over this pier, was three times over the drink drive limit, could play a significant part in deciding any civil court case.’
They added that any culpability the council may have would be severely reduced by Mr McGrotty’s drink driving.
His and Ms James’ four-month-old baby Rioghnach-Ann was the sole survivor after being rescued by Davitt, who swam to the sinking car.
Ms James said the pier was an ‘accident waiting to happen’ because there were no signs warning of the dangers of slipping and a gate designed to control crowds using a summer ferry service in the popular tourist spot was left open.
‘My heart is shattered,’ she said, as she described Mr McGrotty as a wonderful partner and adoring father and spoke of her ‘disbelief, pain and anger’.
‘He lived for them and it is clear from what this inquest has heard that in fact he died as he lived, in that he could have saved himself and chose not to,’ she said.
‘I firmly believe the slipway should have been closed to the general public or else proper warning signs displayed as it was an accident waiting to happen.
Hopefully lessons will be learned and the recommendations made following this inquest will be implemented.’
The panel had been asked to deliberate on whether the deaths were accidental or a result of misadventure.
Misadventure means jurors believe there was risk associated with the events of the day and that somebody had done something to increase the chance of the event happening.
Coroner Denis McCauley said the evidence suggested Mr McGrotty decided voluntarily to drive onto the slipway and added jurors knew what condition he was in.
A post-mortem examination also found his reading was 159ml per 100ml of blood. The legal limit is 50ml.
But the inquest heard that experts could not be certain how that level of alcohol would have impaired Mr McGrotty, because it would depend on whether he was ‘habitual or accustomed’ to that amount of drink.
There were also no signs at the slipway warning of the dangers of slipping. A gate designed to control crowds using a summer ferry service in the popular tourist spot was left open, the hearing was told.
Recording the verdict, the jury’s foreman said: ‘The finding was that death was due to drowning. Cause of death was death by misadventure.’
The spokesman also urged the Irish Water Safety promotional organisation to take a lead on advising and working with all other bodies on implementing best international practice for safety on all slipways and piers.
He added: ‘We hope that this can be implemented as quickly as possible in the light of the tragedy.’
Mr McCauley said the jury had handed the Irish safety authority a ‘golden key’ in its dealings with other agencies, to become the main agency in raising prevention issues.
He said he could not imagine what the victims’ families were going through. ‘It is a terrible thing, we can see that it is just unimaginable,’ he said.
The tragic brothers Mark, 11, (right) Evan (left), eight 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
He said the response times of the emergency services were incredible.
‘They did it with immense thought for the tragedy that did unfold.’
He paid particular tribute to Davitt, who managed to rescue the little girl from the sinking jeep.
He said: ‘This was such a courageous act. He is an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing which he should be commended.’
On the second day of the hearing, the coroner heard how the car doors could have been locked when the car hit the water.
RNLI crew member John O’Raw, who dived down to the vehicle when it was submerged three metres underwater, said in evidence that he had tried to reach the family, but could not open the doors of the car.
The experienced snorkeller – who reached the vehicle about 40 minutes about the first 999 call – told the hearing: ‘The door handles were giving freely but not engaging with the locking mechanism.’
The rescuer also described how the driver’s window was smashed but had bowed inwards, creating an obstacle as he tried to enter the vehicle.
He said the window was only a third of the way open, suggesting the electronics failed at some point due to the water.
Gerard Boyle, a technical expert representing Audi, added that the door would have been left in the same condition it was in when it hit the water – either locked or unlocked.
But he said that, in most circumstances, the door handle should have opened if used from the inside.
Hero: Mr Walsh was pictured cradling baby Rionaghac-Ann after he risked his life to save her
Mr Boyle also said that, once the vehicle lost grip on the slippery algae, it would have been uncontrollable.
The hearing had previously heard how Mr McGrotty had managed to pass his four-month-old daughter through the window to Davitt Walsh – a bypasser who had swam out to the car – moments before it sank.
Evidence suggested Mr McGrotty had managed to smash the window with his elbow.
Mr Walsh had also tried to save one of the two boys, whose hand he managed to grasp, but had to let go when the boy’s foot got caught and Mr Walsh feared he too would be dragged under the water.
ALGAE-COVERED SLIPWAY WAS ‘TREACHEROUS’ WHEN FAMILY DROWNED
The algae-covered slipway was as ‘slippery as ice’ when a car slid into the water killing five members of the same family, the inquest heard.
There were also no barriers to prevent people from accessing the slipway, with no signs to warn of the potential danger.
The hearing into the Buncrana pier deaths also heard that a risk assessment had not been carried out for 15 years.
Lawyer Keith O’Grady told the hearing: ‘In 2016 you have open access to a slipway covered in algae and in 2017 you have the slipway power-washed, cleaned, in excellent condition, and the gate closed and nobody can go down.’
He added that the cost of removing the algae would have been 400euroes.
John McLaughlin, a director at Donegal County Council, said the purpose of cleaning the slipway was to facilitate a ferry which used it during the summer but not in the winter.
He said during winter the slipway was rarely used.
It is not known which of the two boys he was trying to save.
Witnesses had also described how the slipway was ‘thick’ with algae.
Garda Seamus Callaghan, one of the first officers at the scene, told how he had to get down on his hands and knees to stop himself slipping.
He explained how he had arrived to see a woman being given CPR before the area was sealed off and the pier cleared to give the fatalities some dignity.
The priest blessed each member of the family as they were taken from the water, he told the hearing.
Garda Sergeant Mark Traynor, also described the algae as thick and slippy.
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.
During the hearing, a public safety expert who gave evidence urged drivers to carry equipment to break the car window and wanted information on escaping from water included in instruction manuals.
John Leech from the Irish Water Safety promotional body said those becalmed often had only a minute to take action like undoing seatbelts and rolling down windows before exiting safely.
Speaking after the inquest verdict, Inspector Murphy said: ‘We truly hope the conclusion of the inquest will go some way to aiding the grieving process.
‘Generations of a family have lost their lives, as we have heard in the course of this inquest.’
He said the tragedy has impacted on many communities including Buncrana, the Inishowen peninsula and around the country.