Three children and two adults died after a car fell into the sea from a pier in north-western Ireland's County Donegal, while a baby girl was rescued by a bystander, police said on Monday.

Emergency services mounted a search after the car was seen sliding off Buncrana Pier and floating in the sea late Sunday. They recovered the bodies of a man and a woman, two boys and a girl, the police said in a statement.

"At present Gardai (Irish police) are treating this matter as a tragic accident and it does not appear to be a 'self harm' incident," the statement said. "The car may have accidentally slipped into the water."

Local media reports identified the victims as members of a family from the Derry area in Northern Ireland, which borders Donegal.

Sean McGrotty, 49, and his mother-in-law, Ruth Daniels, 59, were travelling in the car with McGrotty's two sons, aged 12 and eight, plus Daniels' 14-year-old daughter, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

A bystander swam out to rescue McGrotty's four-month-old baby daughter, Rionaghac-Ann, just before the car sank, witness Francis Crawford told the Irish Independent newspaper.

McGrotty's brother, Jim McGrotty, told the Belfast Telegraph that relatives wanted to "thank that brave man who swam into the sea" to save the baby.

"We have since found out that Rionaghac-Ann's father, Sean, handed his baby daughter out of the window of the car into the arms of the brave man who dived in to help just seconds before the car sank with the other family members inside it," Jim McGrotty was quoted as saying.

Crawford said he telephoned the coastguard after Sean McGrotty had shouted to him from the floating car, but the vehicle sank about 10 minutes later, before rescuers arrived.

"I was hoping against hope and praying ... that the car would stay afloat knowing that everybody was on their way," he told the Irish Independent.

"And then just all of a sudden the whole lot just went under the water," Crawford said.

"And that was it, and all within 10 minutes, the family was gone, except the wee baby."

The car appeared to have slipped into the water at the end of a ramp used by seasonal ferries, the reports said. Aerial photographs showed the bottom of the steep ramp covered in green algae.

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