Buncrana tragedy victims heartbreaking return to family home

Louise James carries her son Evan's coffin into their home
Louise James carries her son Evan's coffin into their home
Sean, Louise, baby Rioghnach Ann, Evan and Mark McGrotty.
Sean, Louise, baby Rioghnach Ann, Evan and Mark McGrotty.

Surrounded by people and yet almost completely alone, Louise James stood at her gate to welcome home the remains of the lights of her life.

It had only been two days before that her family had left the bungalow, their entire focus only on spending a carefree sunny spring day together amidst the glorious panorama of Lough Swilly.

Now all Louise had left was her four-month-old baby, Rionaghac-Ann, the sole survivor of the worst disaster in many years to befall the Inisowen community.

It was shortly after midday that the long and winding procession of five hearses slowly made its way up the hill at St Eithne's Park.

The modest housing estate is built on the very last outposts of Derry city as it begins to peter out into the rolling green hills of the countryside. The coffin of her beloved partner, Sean McGrotty (49) - who had "lived for the wains and wee Louise" - was first to be taken into the house. Louise was calm and authoritative as she walked in the wake of those who carried him.

The little white coffins of the two boys, Evan (8) - who suffered from muscular dystrophy - and Mark (12), were next. Each coffin was heartbreakingly feather-light and each time, Louise herself insisted on being amongst the party that carried them in their arms.

In the depths of her despair, her courage was immense.

Throughout her ordeal, as she brought home the remains of each individual she had loved and cherished above all others, she maintained a luminous calm strength that was almost supernatural.

Nobody could even begin to imagine the pain and devastation she endured. She had told parish priest Fr Paddy O'Kane that was she was "lost, destroyed" and that Rionaghac-Ann was her only reason to continue.

The next white coffin was that of her teenage sister, Jodie Lee (14) - described by her school principal at St Mary's College as a "quiet, hardworking and beautiful young girl who was always smiling".

Again, Louise insisted on helping to carry her inside, and outside the bungalow, Jodie Lee's teenage friends burst into wails of desolation, comforted by their mothers.
Last came the coffin of her darling mother, Ruth (59), described by neighbours as "a lovely, hardworking woman who had loved her style".

The undertaker quietly asked Louise if she was able for this but, once again, she was determined and taking her place amongst the coffin bearers, lifted its weight onto her shoulder and huddled together in small knots of grief, the neighbours and friends wept.

Their faces were blank in disbelief, the shock at what had occurred only slowly beginning to sink in at the sight of the swathe of coffins.

"Heartbreaking," whispered an elderly lady in anguish.

And then the family were left alone with their close friends to mourn their loved ones in private.

The horror of the tragedy in Buncrana has left the two communities numb with grief.

In the early morning, the scene at Buncrana pier was quietly visited by fire brigade personnel who had taken part in the rescue and recovery operation, in an attempt to begin to process their own private thoughts.

A middle-aged woman was there before them, lost in grief as tears rolled down her face. The night before, a counselling session had been held for members of the Lough Swilly RNLI crews who had taken in the rescue - many of whom have children of a similar age to those who died.

A book of condolence had been opened at the Church of the Holy Family where the funeral will take place tomorrow, while at St Eithne's school, where the two boys had been pupils, bunches of daffodils had been tied to the railings, along with a small, neatly written note in a child's handwriting, saying: "Evan, you had a smile to light up everybody's day."