Damage in huge blast put at 20m pounds: A Belfast housing estate counts the cost of an IRA bomb which may have destroyed vital criminal evidence

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THE IRA bomb which wrecked the forensic science laboratory on the outskirts of Belfast was one of the biggest detonated in a residential area of Northern Ireland.

The 2,000lb (900kg) device reduced every room to rubble. It also caused damage, in some cases severe, to more than 700 homes and other premises. One estimate put repair costs after the blast at about pounds 20m.

The wrecking of the laboratory late on Wednesday night is a blow to the authorities, because the blast may well have destroyed valuable forensic evidence for use in the prosecution of terrorist suspects. But on a personal level it was a traumatic night for hundreds of families who lived through the explosion and face the task of repairing their homes.

The blast was unusually loud and destructive. It shook Belfast and was heard for miles around. Many people living some distance away were convinced the explosion had been outside their door. One man who lives 10 miles away thought his home was under attack and went outside with a golf club to investigate.

Emergency staff said the area affected was one of the largest they had ever known, with damage reported up to a radius of a mile and a half. But the brunt of the damage was suffered by Belvoir Park, a largely Protestant housing estate separated from the laboratory by a dual carriageway.

Up to 50 homes may have to be demolished. Belvoir Park, has been a model and almost incident- free housing estate, built by a public authority, but is now largely privately owned. In one experience which is typical of many, a 65-year-old widow who lives alone was watching television when the bomb went off. Much of the plaster ceiling collapsed while the window shattered into fragments and showered the room. An immediate power cut plunged the house into darkness. She escaped with only a slight cut to the head.

After the explosion people roamed the darkened estate in cars and on foot, checking for relatives and friends while police officers helped tend those suffering from shock and injuries. No one was seriously hurt. A number of pet cats and dogs panicked and ran off into the night.

In the early hours of the morning rain poured through damaged roofs, making life even more difficult for families involved in immediate repair work. At 5am, almost eight hours after the blast, workmen were still engaged in boarding up broken windows.

A Catholic workman was shot dead near Belfast yesterday. The 40-year-old man was shot while fitting a fire at a house in the Protestant Ballybeen estate at Dundonald on the eastern outskirts of the city. Police blamed loyalist paramilitaries for the murder.

The victim, understood to come from Lurgan, Co Armagh, was with other men in the house in Kilmuir Avenue when gunmen burst in and opened fire.

(Photograph omitted)