As darkness fell, townspeople stood on the street corners, sad and angry at the scenes before them. They talked quietly to a background of army helicopters and police and fire crews digging through the rubble left by the blast.
Even by the standards of violence seen in Ulster, it was a particularly cruel attack. People talked in shocked tones about young children being maimed and killed, a young pregnant woman among the casualties, as well as a priest. Some of the bodies of the dead, as well as the injured, had to be ferried to Tyrone County Hospital in the back of tradesmen's vans.
It had begun as carnival day in Omagh. The town centre, normally crowded with shoppers on a Saturday, was particularly busy with families who had arrived to watch the parade in the relaxed atmosphere that has prevailed in Ulster since the Good Friday Agreement.
When police received the coded warning, at about 2.30pm, the mood changed sharply. With confusion about the whereabouts of the bomb, they had little choice but to try to clear the town centre as quickly as possible.
Then came the explosion: the inaccurate warning meant people had been ushered into the very place where the blast was at its worst. In just a few short minutes, the carnival had turned to carnage. Eyewitnesses wept as they described bodies in the streets and people horribly injured. "I saw bodies lying everywhere, dead people being zipped into bags," said Dorothy Boyle, 59, who lives in the town. "There was a girl in a wheelchair screaming for help. There were people bleeding."
Other witnesses said the local priest had been called to the hospital to administer the last rites to people who were dying. "He said he had never seen anything like it when he got in there. There was just screaming and the blood was everywhere," said Trevor Kane.
Another eyewitness described the centre of the town as a "scene of carnage".
The townspeople stressed that Omagh had always had comparatively good relations between its Protestant and Catholic populations. And they expressed fears that this may lead to retaliations by loyalist paramilitaries, once again beginning a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Robert Jackson, a 53-year-old engineer, said: "I have seen children hurt, women hurt, these were just shoppers for God's sake, why were they targeted?"
The roads to Tyrone County Hospital were blocked with dozens of cars as panic-stricken local people tried to get news of relatives, and the town's phone lines were all down, adding to the panic.
A trail of blood leading up the steps of Tyrone County Hospital illustrated the horrifying aftermath of the bomb attack. Dozens of ambulances continued carrying casualties to other hospitals. Four hours after the bomb exploded ambulances were still ferrying backwards and forwards. The sound of cutting equipment mingled with the noise of army helicopters.
As word of the rising death toll went around the devastated town, a casualty bureau was set up by the RUC for those wanting to ask about relatives and friends who may have been involved. The number is Belfast (01232) 673371.Reuse content