Omagh Bombing: The missing young mother was my cousin

Martina Devlin, born and brought up in Omagh, returned there as a reporter
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I WAS standing in the knot of journalists, waiting to hear deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's words of comfort, or condemnation, when I heard my name called.

It was Terry, a man I played with as a child. Terry didn't realise I was in Omagh in a working capacity. I felt strangely embarrassed as I explained that I was reporting. It was almost as though I was a voyeur in my home town.

This feeling of occupying a parallel universe emerged again later, as I interviewed bereaved relatives and anxious neighbours in the makeshift information centre.

A man was speaking of his friend and neighbour, Libby Rush, who was on the missing list - people didn't know if she was alive or dead. My pen halted in its headlong rush: did she have a boutique in the town called Libby's? I asked. He nodded. I went to school with her daughter. As a teenager I used to admire her impeccable dress sense.

It got worse. Someone else mentioned the name of a young mother who had gone missing and I asked for her name to be repeated. It was my cousin. I rang home during a brief respite and learned to my relief that she was in hospital in Derry with an arm injury.

That's the scale of the carnage here in Omagh - you hear of people with serious injuries and you thank God for their lucky escape. Distressing information kept interrupting me as I did my job, reporting on the explosion for the Dublin-based Irish Independent. It was difficult to ignore: schoolfriends, neighbours and relatives are all affected by death and destruction on this scale in a town of just 25,000 people.

One of the women killed is the sister-in-law of my first boyfriend and a picture of her flashes into my mind. She's a mother, with a smile that lit up her face. I think of her family and I grieve for them, even as I scribble her name in my notebook.

My brother's sister-in-law had 12 stitches to her head, another sister- in-law had a dead 17-year-old cousin, even my 10-year-old nieces saw dismembered bodies and babies with their hair scorched off. These scenes are nightmare material for adults, never mind little girls.

I stood in the leisure centre waiting for the arrival of Ireland's President, Mary McAleese, surrounded by the familiar faces of childhood - but they were faces whacked with grief and misery.

Omagh has become the town with the single highest death toll in the history of the Troubles.