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Harrowing Donegal inquest hears of desperate attempts to get car and driver from the water

Coroner commends everyone involved for their efforts on the night

Sister of Arranmore tragedy victim extends thanks to all

The late Lee Early, Fallagowan, Arranmore Island

An inquest into the tragic death of Lee Early heard harrowing details of his final moments and the subsequent attempts to reach the submerged car.

Mr Early from Arranmore Island was only 26 years of age when his life was cut short in a tragic accident at Poolawaddy, Arranmore Island on November 17, 2019. He was a member of the Arranmore Lifeboat crew.

An inquest into his death was held by coroner Dr Denis McCauley in Donegal Town Courthouse on Wednesday. It found that Mr Early died as a result of drowning. 

The inquest heard from Lee Early’s lifelong friend Tim Donovan who was with him when his car entered the water.

Mr Donovan’s deposition was read into evidence by Sergeant Fergus McGroary.

He outlined how Mr Early had picked him up at 8.30pm and the pair went to a bar where they were drinking pints before switching to vodka. They moved on to another bar followed by a disco in the local hall. 

“Lee was in good form,” said Mr Donovan in his deposition. 

By around 4.30am there were no further venues open. The men bought a six pack of Budweiser and went to Mr Early’s car.

It was then that the tragedy began to unfold.

“There were no house parties or anything like that so we drove to the lifeboat station,” said Mr Donovan. 

The inquest heard how Mr Donovan suggested stopping at a pier but his friend didn’t acknowledge him, and instead turned in at the lifeboat station gate.

“I said OK, lifeboat station, whatever,” continued Mr Donovan in his deposition. “He didn’t acknowledge that either.

“He didn’t stop the car at all. He drove down the slipway and kept going.

“I said ‘Stop, I can’t swim.’

“There was no reaction from him. We were still going forward into the water.”

Mr Donovan managed to get his door open and escape the vehicle. 

“I was shouting at Lee to get out, to break a window,” said Mr Donovan. “I couldn’t understand why Lee wasn’t coming up to the surface.”

Mr Donovan ran to a nearby house to call 999.

A member of that household also contacted the lifeboat station’s medic, John McCafferty and told him what had happened.

Mr Donovan returned to the slipway by which time members of the lifeboat crew had started to arrive. He pointed out where he had last seen the car.

Mr McCafferty’s deposition was then read into evidence.

It outlined Mr Cafferty getting the call at 5.11am to tell him that Lee Early had entered the water.

“I jumped into the car and set off for the lifeboat station,” he said in his deposition.

Mr McCafferty phoned Mr Early’s father Jimmy along the way.

On arrival, Mr McCafferty shone his car lights over the water but couldn’t see anything.

He went to the lifeboat station to put on lights and get the crew torches which picked up the reflection of the number plates. 

He got the station’s Land Rover and boat, by which time Jimmy Early had arrived.

Mr McCafferty said the car at that point was 30 or 40 feet from the shore. He put on a life jacket and wet gear.

“I told Jimmy I was going in the water,” he said. “But Jimmy said I wasn’t going in the water.”

Mr McCafferty then returned to the station to get ropes and grappling hooks to attach to the car, and a hammer to break the window.

He and Mr Early made several attempts to get a hook onto the car from the boat.

Another crewman arrived and he too prepared to go into the water.

“Again, Jimmy said no,” said Mr McCafferty.

Another man, Frankie Bonner, arrived and with the support of the men on the boat he entered the water and attached the hook.

As the car neared the slipway Mr Bonner got on the roof and smashed the rear passenger window.

Mr Bonner then managed to get Mr Early from the car. Some crew began chest compressions. Mr McCafferty went to the ambulance 1.5 miles away and got a defibrillator. Unfortunately, attempts to resuscitate Mr Early were unsuccessful.

A doctor arrived a short time later and sadly, Mr Early was pronounced dead.

Mr McCafferty concluded his deposition by saying: “We all knew Lee well. I worked a few years with him on the boat. He was a lovely guy and I can’t believe he is gone.”

The inquest then heard from pathologist Dr Gerry O’Dowd who conveyed the findings of an autopsy by his colleague Dr Dillon.

He said that the autopsy findings were consistent with drowning.

Dr O’Dowd said that the autopsy had revealed an alcohol level of 326mg per 100ml of blood and 405mg per 100ml of urine. Tests for other drugs were negative.

Dr O’Dowd said that the alcohol level may explain Mr Early’s lack of reaction to his friend in the moments before the tragedy occurred.

“There is a possibility that he would have passed out and that would explain his lack of response,” said the pathologist.

The inquest heard evidence from Garda Aidan Mulvihill who carried out a technical examination of Mr Early's Volkswagen Passat. Evidence was also heard from Garda Gerard McCauley who undertook a collision investigation.

Both reports showed that the car itself appeared to have been in serviceable condition prior to the incident. The lack of impact damage showed that the car had entered the water slowly.

Regarding the slipway, Garda McCauley said: “The surface of the slipway was in excellent condition; excellent levels of grip. 

“I examined the surface and it was free from any contaminants that could have contributed to the collision.”

In relation to the general conditions the garda said there were no streetlights in the area. It had been dark and overcast at the time but conditions were dry and there was no ice or frost.

Jimmy Early asked the coroner if a recommendation could be made to have a wind-down system on at least one car window in the future.

Dr McCauley replied that in some cars, electric windows kept working for 20 minutes after entering the water.

The coroner thanked everyone who had given evidence and contributed to the investigation.

“This has been a very upsetting inquest from the point of view of detailed evidence,” said Dr McCauley. 

“The fact that Mr Early [Snr] was there makes the whole scene particularly difficult to visualise. With Mr Early’s experience from dealing with the lifeboat he was unwilling to let members enter the water. I compliment him greatly for that.”

The coroner recorded the cause of death as drowning. He then explained that he also had to record a further description.

“It was an accident but because Lee in a way contributed - the alcohol level may impacted his reaction time on entering the water - we have to describe that as death by misadventure,” he said.

Dr McCauley praised the people of Arranmore for their response.

“The fact that it is an island, it is a community that reacts when there is an incident,” he said. “We saw the island working completely together, the emergency service and lifeboat, the doctor arriving in quick time. 

“Everybody did their best to try and save Lee but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.”

The coroner also thanked those who gave evidence.

“I found it very harrowing to listen to the first two witnesses' evidence and I am sure they did too.

“My condolences to all on this really sad event.”

Sergeant McGroary also expressed his condolences on behalf of his garda colleagues.

“Some of them knew Lee personally,” he said. “We pass on our sympathies.”

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