Omagh Remembers: Streets full of dignity, despair and raw wounds

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The Independent Online
ONE PRETTY Omagh teenage girl has only one leg, her other limb having been scythed off by the bomb. Another is blind, robbed of her sight by shrapnel. A third, who has a scarred face, was none the less radiant with happiness and hope for the future when she married in March.

Their conventional beauty may have gone, but it has been replaced by a transcendent and inspiring resilience and determination to get on with life, no matter how cruelly fate may have treated them.

Omagh was never a bitter town, its people say, and it is not bitter now. When its people gather tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of the bomb the prevailing mood will be one of remembrance rather than vengeance.

The Co Tyrone town has somehow found the strength to hold together in the face of last year's catastrophe, and to maintain harmonious community relations, instead of splitting into divisive factions and mutual recrimination. It is the unity of shared grief: the bomb killed Protestants and Catholics alike, and the pain is collective.

Although there is much dignity in Omagh it is obvious that it is in quiet distress, a town which is still in deep shock. It is working hard and it is coping, but a year on, the town's wounds remain raw. The hope is that tomorrow's ceremony, when townsfolk gather at the scene of the bomb, will help to quicken the pace of the process of reconstruction.

The religious service will take place in Market Street, where a car packed with explosives blew up during a busy Saturday shopping afternoon. It killed 29 people and injured 200 or more, many of whom had been shepherded towards it after a misleading telephoned warning.

Some of those who went to the scene that day still cannot come to terms with the horror that confronted them. One man, in an interview broadcast this week by Ulster Television, spoke of seeing limbless objects in the street and thinking at first that they were shop dummies. But they were people.

He then related how a burst water pipe sent a strong stream coursing down Market Street: "There were people, or actually pieces of people, bodies being washed in, which is something that you never forget. They were just basically piling up at the corner where the gully was. Bits and pieces of legs, arms, whatever, were floating down that street."

This type of terrible detail is normally quietly excised from reports of atrocities, but in this case it seems proper to show the enormity of the horror that visited Omagh. It helps to explain why some of the 500 people who have received counselling continue to be troubled by flashbacks and panic attacks.

Many people, especially the injured, have never returned to the scene of the explosion, and will do so tomorrow for the first time. One local man, speaking at the scene, said this week: "Some regard it as a sort of a graveyard. They think of it as being on a battlefield where people were slaughtered, as a sacred place."

A 15-year-old girl who suffered arm and leg injuries in the blast said: "I hate going there. I will never walk up through there. I think it will stay with me for ever. It is impossible to get away from it."

Those who venture back to the scene will find many reminders of the damage wreaked by the bomb. A number of buildings have been demolished, with hoardings put up around the empty spaces. One hoarding has two bouquets of flowers fastened to it, with notes attached for all to read.

They relate to Esther Gibson, who was due to be married on 29 July this year, her birthday. On the day of the explosion she and her fiance, Kenneth, had gone into town to have their photograph taken together. They separated in the town and after the explosion Kenneth could not find her. Then he discovered her car "and my heart turned over," he said later. "When they killed her, I died with her. I wish I had been with her. I wish I was with her this minute."

The two bouquets were placed at the site last month and have been left reverently untouched by locals. One bears the note: "It can never be your wedding day but today [29 July] will always be your birthday. Love from your sister Caroline." The other bears the message: "Esther, I know we will not be married today but we are linked with a love no parting can sever. Kenneth, July 29th."

There were many harrowing moments away from the scene of the explosion. Because there were not enough ambulances to cope with so many dead and injured, cars and buses were pressed into service. One woman whose daughter was injured helped people on to a bus.

She said: "There were limbs hanging off, bodies being carried on doors, everything was chaotic. Then just as the bus was ready to leave, the door opened and someone handed a severed arm in. I think that was just too much for the driver. I think he cried all the way to the hospital."

A bus driver, later given a bravery award, recalled ferrying injured people: "It was like a scene from hell. I wasn't able to drive fast because people were screaming in pain. As we went over the ramps at the hospital I could hear the roars of pain."

Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh took in well over a hundred people that day, while many others were transferred to other hospitals. People remember the corridors and wards red with blood, with people running, screaming and crying.

A nurse later wrote of her experiences: "I went through all wards witnessing some horrendous injuries, suffering and cries for help. It was humbling to see so many carers turn up to help the victims. The corridors of the hospital were packed with people, some looking for loved ones, some crying, some there just to help. The floors and surfaces were splattered with blood."

Back in Market Street one man who was crouched beside his inert wife, hoping she was still alive, watched as a fireman he knew felt her arm for a pulse and then walked on. He knew then his wife was dead.

But others had a long and agonising wait before the worst was confirmed. At Omagh's leisure centre over the following 24 hours, hundreds of relatives and friends waited for news of those missing.

Only five of the dead were immediately identifiable, leaving more than 20 who could not be identified, either because of the extent of their injuries or the absence of any documents. The process of identification wasthus painstaking and prolonged.

Again and again groups of relatives were called into a side room to be told of the death of the person they were looking for. Bereaved relatives would then be escorted to the makeshift mortuary, where soldiers had used curtains, flowers, comfortable chairs and tea and coffee to create a temporary waiting area.

Such was the scale of the disaster that at times families had to queue, waiting their turn to confirm the identity of their relative. The families then returned distraught to the leisure centre. Not until late on Sunday were the authorities confident that everyone had been accounted for.

The days that followed brought an apparently endless stream of funerals. Breda Devine was to have acted as a flower girl at a relative's wedding, and her mother had brought her into town to buy shoes for the big day. Her mother survived extensive injuries but Breda died, at the age of one year and eight months.

There were many young people among the dead, some of them doing Saturday work in the shops, some of them in town to buy school uniforms for the new term, some of them visitors from as far afield as Spain.

The youngest, Maura Monaghan, was aged just a year and a half. Her mother, Avril, was killed with her: the fact that she was heavily pregnant with twins, due to be born last October, has led many in the town to regard the death toll not as 29 but as 31. Avril's mother, Mary, died too.

Baby Maura lies now in a small white coffin in a peaceful country graveyard at St MacCartan's church some miles from Omagh, beside her mother and the unborn twins. She is remembered by her family as "just a beautiful, curly haired angel who was loved by everyone".

After all the funerals came grief, bereavement, loneliness and loss as everyone absorbed the grievous bodily harm the bombers had inflicted on the town and all the affected families. But Omagh did not wallow in self- pity: quiet heroes such as the council's chief executive, John McKinney, got on with the task of holding it all together and rebuilding, step by painful step.

For tomorrow's ceremony a temporary garden of remembrance has been created close to the site of the explosion, creating a focal point where flowers can be left and where people can pause for a moment of quiet contemplation.

Sitting on one of its benches this week, a veteran former councillor, Stephen McKenna, said sadly: "A remarkable number of the dead and the injured were quite young, and you'll see them in the street, those who have lost limbs or who are limping or who have been facially disfigured.

"There's also of course what we can't measure or see, which is the psychological or emotional scars. The flashbacks, the nightmares about dreadful experiences, all these things are still there and people have to live with that.

"Those most directly affected will never get over it. As a community we have been humbled and saddened and hurt, but there's a recognition that life has to go on." The little garden was constructed in a few days. One moment the workmen were still in it, raking the soil; the next they had tidied up and gone. Then John McKinney arrived, walking through, checking everything was in order for tomorrow.

He had just left when the first visitor arrived, a grey-haired woman who leant forward from her wheelchair to place a small pot of yellow flowers on the bare earth, a little gesture of sympathy witnessed by few. The library just down the road contains many more assurances to the people of Omagh that they have the compassion and pity of the whole world, and its hopes that they can one day recover from so great a grief, so terrible a sacrifice.

A large room in the library houses an inspirational exhibition entitled "Petals of Hope, Rays of Light". It contains artworks fashioned by schools from the deluge of flowers sent to the town at the time of the bomb. It has shelves stacked with 800 books of condolence sent from everywhere: they must contain millions of signatures.

One person wrote: "In my prayers". Another: "Bless everyone. I wish I could do more." A third penned the simple message: "So sorry".

The artworks bear lines from Seamus Heaney, which are meant to give hope and compassion to those affected by that most savage and most merciless bomb, lines which may in the difficult years ahead offer some small measure of poetic and human consolation:

So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge,

Believe that a further shore is reachable from here,

Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.