A Donegal man has been hailed a hero after swimming out to try and save a tragic family whose car went off the pier in Buncrana, County Donegal. He succeeded in saving a four month old baby but the man, the woman and three children died.

Sean McGrotty (46), his sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his mother-in-law Ruth Daniels (57) and her 15-year-old daughter Jodie Lee, all died after their Audi car slid off the County Donegal pier and into the sea. McGrotty’s partner, Louise, was in Britain at a pre wedding party. Four-month-old baby Rioghnach survived.

The heroism of Davitt Walsh, a former professional footballer who hails from Kerrykeel, County Donegal has been hailed all over Ireland.

Davitt came across the family tragedy while walking on the beach in Buncrana, Co. Donegal with his girlfriend Stephanie.

“I am very shook up,” Davitt told The Irish Times from his home where his family had gathered. “There are a lot of mixed emotions going through my head. I was maybe being a bit too hard on myself about not being able to do more, but I did all that I could do.”

They saw the car in the water, after it plunged off the dock on a slippery surface in Buncrana Pier.

Read more: Couple and three kids drown in tragic Donegal accident, little baby survives

“The car was in the water, and it just kept going farther and farther out,” said Davitt. “Stephanie said, ‘Davitt do something,’ because the family were all screaming in the car. I said ‘Okay, I’m going.’ I just stripped off and headed straight for the family.”

Davitt said at that stage the car was drifting farther out. When he decided to swim to the vehicle it was “bobbing in the water” about 60 feet out, but when he eventually got to the car it was about 180 feet out.

“The algae was absolutely lethal. When I was heading out to the family I slipped and nearly cracked my head. On my way back holding the baby I could not get my feet again. I never experienced anything like it.

“Stephanie fell as well trying to help us. I had to be helped out of the water I was that exhausted.

“When I got to the car the engine was completely submerged and the back of the car was up in the air,” he said

“The window was half ajar. The man [Seán McGrotty] started breaking the window on the driver’s side. I said ‘everyone has to get out of the car’. He got out and sat on the edge of the window with his hand on the roof. He grabbed the baby and handed her to me. I took the baby. One of the children tried to get out as well through the back seat but he couldn’t get out.

“The father had a decision to make. He was either going to get out or go back. He looked at me and said, ‘save the baby.’ And he went back into the car. And the car went down.”

“I swam backwards with the baby held up out of the water. It felt like an eternity to get back to the slipway. I was absolutely exhausted. If it was any longer I don’t think I would have made it. As I was swimming in I was talking to the baby; the baby was crying. It obviously was in distress; it was looking down on me every so often. I was saying to the baby, ‘it’s okay, I am going to get you back to shore, everything's okay.’ ”

At the pier Stephanie grabbed the baby, and wrapped her in her big camel coat. She brought her to their car and “blasted the heat on as high as possible,” said Davitt.

“I wrapped up the baby and cradled her warm,” said Stephanie. “I knew that if it was any longer in its wet clothes that after all Davitt’s hard work it could die. At first I thought the baby was dead because I could not hear it crying. But when I held it close it made a wee cough. And I said, ‘oh my God it’s alive’. And then it started crying.”

Davitt’s mother Siobhán told The Irish Times that Davitt “was a very spiritual” person.

“He told me he prayed as he brought the wee baby in, and he said definitely there was more than him there to help the baby. He told his sister Dearbhla he was never so frightened in his life. There were a lot of tears in this house, I can tell you.”

Asked how she felt about Davitt’s bravery, Siobhán added: “I don’t know if proud is the proper word. I feel very sad for the family. And I feel very thankful that Davitt was able to save the young baby and also that he was saved himself. He is a very brave young man.”

Davitt Walsh, the Donegal man, hailed as a hero having saved four-month0old baby but he was unable to save father, woman and three children in national tragedy.