herald

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Mum's bravery as pier victims go home

Distraught family and friends weep as they see heartbroken mother carry coffins of drowning tragedy victims

Mum Louise James (left) carries one of the coffins in Derry (NW NewsPix)
Mum Louise James (left) carries one of the coffins in Derry (NW NewsPix)
Sean McGrotty and Louise (top) holding baby Rioghnach-Ann, with sons Mark (12) and Evan (8)

A grief-stricken mother, partner, daughter and sister. Louise James - mum of baby Rioghnach-Ann - carries a burden that most of us can't begin to imagine. But it is not something she carries alone.

This was evident as scores of family and friends gathered around her as she stood at her gate to welcome home the family she had lived for.

Now all she has left is her baby, Rioghnach-Ann, the sole survivor of the horror that unfolded at Lough Swilly. And a daughter that has, as mum Louise has told friends and family, given her reason to live.

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, a housing estate located on the outskirts of Derry city.

Doting

The coffin of her beloved partner, Sean McGrotty (49) - who had "lived for the weans and wee Louise" - was first to be taken into the house.

The little white coffins of her two boys, Evan (8) - who suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy - and Mark (12) were next.

Louise was a doting mother to her two boys - and was known for her fundraising work for charities Make-A-Wish and Together for Short Lives, perhaps inspired by her younger son's condition.

Last May, a proud Louise was photographed tearfully hugging her son Evan after he completed a charity event in Derry.

Embracing both her sons, an overcome Louise wept with pride for them as her mother Ruth stood smiling by her side.

Less than 10 months later, Louise herself insisted on carrying the white coffins of her young sons into their family home for the last time.

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 can compare the pain and devastation she has endured in the last few days. She had told parish priest Fr Paddy O'Kane that she was "lost, destroyed" and that Rioghnach-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, hard-working 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, hard-working 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 on to her shoulder. Huddled together in small knots of grief, the neighbours and friends wept.

"Heartbreaking," whispered an elderly lady in anguish.

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.

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 of those who died and who have been left deeply traumatised.

Candles

Books of Condolence had been opened at a little table with candles lit alongside at the Church of the Holy Family, where the funeral will take place tomorrow.

"There are no words in any language that can express my sadness and loss," wrote one mourner.

Poignantly, a group of children arrived at the church to take part in a Stations of the Cross just as Louise arrived to meet with the priest, Fr Paddy O'Kane - who was writing his homily for the extensive funeral.

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