Eight die in 'worst crash on record'

Seven friends were killed along with another man in the worst road accident on record in the country after watching Spain win the World Cup, it was revealed tonight.

Some of the friends, who were all aged between 19 and 23, left their cars behind to take a lift after socialising in the village of Clonmany on the Inishowen peninsula.

Eight people were packed into a Volkswagen Passat which clipped a Renault Megane on the country road to Buncrana before ploughing head-on into a Toyota Corolla in a horror smash 200 metres away.

Both cars ended up in a ditch and alcohol was not a factor in the crash, gardaí said.

The driver of the third car, who was alone, was also killed – 66-year-old Hugh Friel, an unmarried man from Dunaff, Clonmany, was returning home after an evening at bingo in Buncrana.

The others were named as Paul Doherty, 19, from Ardagh, Ballyliffin; Ciaran Sweeney, 19, also from Ballyliffin; Patrick ’PJ’ McLaughlin, 21, from Rockstown, Tooban, Burnfoot; Mark McLaughlin, 21, from Ballynahone, Fahan; and his cousin Damien McLaughlin, 21, from Umricam, near Buncrana; Eamonn McDaid from Ballymagan, Buncrana; and James McEleney, 23, from Minaduff, Clonmany.

All the men died at the scene.

Fire service crews, paramedics and gardai were said to have been in utter shock after seeing the scale of death and devastation on the rural road.

The driver of the car carrying eight people was named as Sean Kelly from the Urris area. He was in a critical but stable condition in Letterkenny General Hospital.

It is believed he was driving some of the friends home to the Buncrana and Fahan areas while two others were also intending to continue socialising at the Liberties nightclub in Buncrana.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, on a trip to New York, extended his sympathy to the families of those killed on the roads this weekend.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of these deaths and I want to extend my sincere sympathies to everyone who lost loved ones. Each death on our roads is tragic and brings untold suffering to families, friends and the entire community,” the Taoiseach said.

Prayers were offered for all those caught up in the tragedy at a morning Mass in Buncrana ahead of several removals from Letterkenny to the family homes across three parishes in Inishowen.

Father Rafal Januszewski, who celebrated Mass at St Mary’s, spent time comforting scores of relatives who gathered in the hospital throughout last night.

“Many, many people were there inside – there were maybe 20 people in the corridor but they were very quiet. Nobody was talking but some people were crying,” the Polish priest said.

“They were distraught. We were talking about this tragedy and offering words of comfort to help to give them peace.”

The crash happened at about 10.40pm on a stretch of road between Buncrana and Clonmany in the townland of Glassmullen, about 2km from the North Pole pub.

Assistant Commissioner Kieran Kenny said it was the worst road accident he has dealt with in his 34 years in the force.

“This is a very, very sad and tragic and stressful time and we will do what we can to get those people through the next few days,” he said.

Traffic corps officers believe the black Northern-registered Passat carrying eight men collided with the front wing and wheel of the Donegal-registered white Megane before the driver lost control and smashed into the red Corolla, which was also Donegal registered.

The senior Garda added: “It is a short stretch, a straight stretch which comes between two bends. It would appear at this time that the two incidents were part of the same action.”

The accident happened on the R238 – ten stretches of which are classed as collision prone zones on official Garda files.

However, Assistant Commissioner Kenny said the scene of the crash, between two bends, had a good surface and was dry at the time. Anyone who was on the road between 10pm and 11pm was asked to contact local gardaí.

It is understood relatives of some of those who died were out of the country and others were due to return home from the Oxegen music festival in Co Kildare.

Floral tributes were left near the crash scene as scores of people attended Mass in Buncrana in memory of those killed and injured. A special helpline was also set up for grieving relatives.

Father Eddie McGuinness, Curate at St Mary’s, Cockhill, also in Buncrana, added: “We are human beings and I know I will shed my own tears.”

Local politicians said the entire Inishowen region had been thrown into a state of shock by the tragedy.

Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh said close-knit communities across a wide area of the peninsula were affected by the deaths.

“Even though you are talking about different boys coming from north-west Inishowen and south-west Inishowen, there are still families connected and communities connected and it’s the worst possible nightmare for the families involved,” he said.

“It’s an absolute nightmare.”

Mary Clinton, who founded the A-Ceart (Action Campaign for Education Against Road Tragedies) in Donegal several years ago, offered her condolences.

“There’s nothing as devastating as losing a child. Losing a child is the most horrendous thing that can happen to anybody. It does not bear thinking about,” she said.

The area has seen a number of multiple deaths in road accidents, including five young local people killed in a crash involving a drunk driver near Quigley’s Point in 2005 and five Eastern Europeans killed in a two-car crash near Buncrana in 2006.

However, Ireland’s road safety record has dramatically improved, with the number of deaths down by 41% over the last eight years.

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