The horrific crash scene where Marie Conneely, Sarah Byrne, Sorcha McLoughlin and Theresa Molloy lost their lives while Michelle O'Donnell is still fighting for her life.

'In all my years as a priest, I've never seen anything as bad as what I came across. I suppose you could say I felt death knocking on my door. It's not something that is easy to come to terms with at all. I'm thinking of them and their families everywhere I go."

Fr Michael Kenny, parish priest of Kilconly in Galway, lets out a deep sigh before continuing to recall the traumatic events of last Tuesday night.

As a priest with 34 years' service, he is used to attending the scenes of car crashes and witnessing the devastation they can bring.

But nothing could prepare him for the scene he was met with on the Tuam Road.

Sarah Byrne (20) from Headford, Co Galway; Theresa Molloy (19) from Leitir Móir, Co Galway; Marie Stephanie Conneely (19) from Baile na hAbhann, Co Galway; and Sorcha Rose McLoughlin (19) from Mulgannon, Co Wexford, died when the car they were travelling in was involved in a collision with a truck in the darkness and torrential rain at Carrownurlaur, on the N17 between Milltown, Co Galway, and Ballindine, Co Mayo.

Prayers were being said for a fifth student, their friend 21-year-old Michelle O'Donnell, who is this weekend continuing to fight for her life having been transferred to Beaumont hospital in Dublin suffering from severe head and chest injuries.

All five were students at NUI Galway and keen Irish-language enthusiasts who were frequently seen on campus chatting among themselves as gaeilge.

Fr Kenny arrived at the rain-soaked crash scene shortly after 8pm after being telephoned at his home by Tuam gardaí.

After making the 10-15 minute journey in his car, he found three or four garda cars, two units of the fire brigade and ambulances already at the scene.

By that stage, the rescue services had taken two of the injured to hospital. Three others, all in the back of the car, were pronounced dead at the scene.

It is believed they died instantly, such was the sheer impact of the crash. Garda sources say that a large puddle caused the girls' car to 'pull' onto the wrong side of the road at a dangerous bend in the road where it was struck head on by the truck travelling in the opposite direction.

When Fr Kenny arrived at the scene he anointed the deceased and gave last rites. Their injuries were, he says, extensive.

"The conditions for travelling were the worst I have seen for a long time. As a priest you try to do what you can. I'm just so very sorry for them, so very sorry for their families and friends."

A yellow Isuzu truck and the girls' blue car at the scene of the crash – its entire middle and back sections ripped apart – tell their own story of what transpired on a wet and miserable night last Tuesday.

The scene was such that at first emergency services believed one of the women had been a passenger in the truck, according to one report.

It later transpired they had been returning from a shopping trip in Sligo when the crash happened at about 7.30pm. They were probably full of excitement, chat and gossip, perhaps planning their forthcoming weekend's activities.

The students had attended Michelle O'Donnell's 21st birthday party on Inis Mór only a few weeks ago.

Sarah was a third-year Irish and geography student at NUI Galway, while Theresa and Marie were both third-year students of Irish and translation studies.

Sorcha was a second-year BA geography and applied-maths science and Irish diploma student.

Michelle, like her late friends Theresa and Marie, is also a third-year Irish and translation-studies student.

Fr Micheal Mac Craith, a professor in the Irish department at NUI Galway who taught four of the girls, remembers that he had it in mind to tell Sarah at a tutorial planned for 9am the following day that her most recent essay for him had shown a welcome improvement in the run up to her exams.

Instead, he was greeted on Wednesday morning by grief-stricken students who told him the awful news.

There are only 10 students in the translation-through-Irish tutorial, and now three of them are gone, he points out.

"This is Áras na Gaeilge, a special place for Irish students. But there is just a deathly hush over the place in the last few days. It is not just an empty silence but a very respectful silence."

Headford parish priest Fr James O'Grady, who knew Sarah Byrne, describes her as a very happy and outgoing girl. She worked in a local supermarket at the weekends for extra pocket money, and was a popular and well known face in the town.

"She was looking forward to life, and had just celebrated her 20th birthday," he says. "She was the same as any other girl her age, I suppose, in her final year at university and a credit to her parents."

Sorcha, meanwhile, was involved in Rotaract, the Rotary club for young adults. Her friend and Rotaract president, Ciara Brady, told one newspaper that words could not express her sense of loss.

Sorcha would ordinarily have been enjoying a fashion show organised by Rotaract this week. Instead, the same event was dedicated to her memory.

"I shared accommodation with Sorcha last year and knew the others through her. Words cannot express how I feel... We are all deeply shocked at her death," she said.

On Thursday evening, NUI Galway students and lecturers held an informal service for Sorcha, where hundreds of students and staff, as well as her parents and other family members, gathered around her coffin in the college chapel while music and prayers were said.

Mary O'Riordan, the college's vice president, described the service as a "stop on the way home" for Sorcha, whose burial takes place in Achill later today.

The driver of the truck, a 42-year-old builder and father of two named locally as Pat Kelly, was released earlier this week from Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar and is said to be deeply traumatised by the crash.

Michelle O'Donnell, the daughter of Nora and John, who is the RNLI Aran Island lifeboat coxswain, was continuing to fight for her life and remained in a critical condition this weekend.

Serious questions remain about why the crash occurred in the first place. Superintendent Marie Skehill of Tuam garda station, who is heading up the investigation, says the force's forensic collision investigators conducted a thorough examination of the scene.

She has set up an incident room at Tuam, and is appealing for anyone who may have been on that stretch of road, or who may have seen the girls travelling in their car, to come forward.

Three family liaison officers have also been assigned. She cautioned against "idle speculation" as to the cause of the crash, and expressed her sympathy to all involved.

Yet within 24 hours of last Tuesday's crash, locals revealed how they had long campaigned for something to be done about safety on two dangerous bends – known as Coyne's Bend and Hernon's Bend – on the 8km stretch between Ballindine and Milltown.

They have urged the National Roads Authority to take immediate action to improve the road.

Mary Hernon, who lives at Musicfield on Hernon's Bend, told reporters last week that 20 crashes had occurred at the two bends in the last three months.

"Eight thousand cars pass here every day between Galway and Sligo, and we have been on to the NRA, the county council and councillors and the gardaí about this most dangerous stretch on the entire N17," she said.

She added that she and neighbour John Coyne had met on Monday – hours before the crash – to try to organise a petition about the road.

"John Coyne has seen more crashes than anyone in his lifetime and it is so traumatic for those involved and for him also," she said.

Marita Gibbons, a niece of Coyne, added that the bend was "dangerous whatever the weather".

Local councillor Sean Canny went further, telling RTé radio that the crash scene was just one of many other blackspots in the area. He called for money to be allocated to address this.

Fr Kenny, one of the few to have witnessed first hand the extent of the devastation at the scene last Tuesday, is also aware of the safety issues on this stretch of road. He said he would like to see the government use innovative measures to fix problem roads.

The area where the crash occurred goes downhill, and you have to take a sharp left turn.

"If you keep going downhill you'd go into a field. It's almost like a trap. These were young girls, and they possibly wouldn't have known the road," he said. "The government at this time has a lot of unemployment, a lot of people on the dole. Why don't they put them into a situation where they can work on the roads?"

All these perhaps are questions for the future, although locals argue that action is needed urgently to avoid any further tragedies.

In the meantime, this weekend the families of Sarah, Theresa, Marie and Sorcha will have been focusing on their own private grief, preparing to do what no parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent or other relative should ever have to do. They went about burying their young.