Omagh inquest leaves Ulster united in grief

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The Independent Online

Everyone knew that the inquest into the deaths of the 29 victims of the Omagh bomb, which drew to a close yesterday, would be a harrowing experience. But in the event it was worse than most people hadexpected.

Everyone knew that the inquest into the deaths of the 29 victims of the Omagh bomb, which drew to a close yesterday, would be a harrowing experience. But in the event it was worse than most people hadexpected.

Bereaved families had to endure week after week of minutely detailed evidence on how the bomb was planted, how the warnings were handled and how the device went off. Worst of all, there were graphic details of what the blast did to their loved ones.

Some families steeled themselves and turned up day after day, while others, unable to face such a public ordeal, stayed away. Many of those who did come gathered each morning to pray together first.

The terrible memories and revelations had their effect well beyond the courtroom, for the Northern Ireland media has provided extensive daily coverage. With the approval of relatives, the accounts have been more explicit than is usual in such cases. One Belfast newspaper printed the warning: "Readers are advised of the graphic nature of the evidence given in these reports."

Many in the wider community have thus been informed of details normally quietly edited out. They have shared in the horror. A new communal memory has been created of the damage inflicted by the Omagh bomb.

Some of the police and others who were at the scene were still, two years on, too traumatised to attend the inquest. One policeman who managed to struggle through his evidence had been in the job for only 12 weeks before the bombing. He spoke of "men and women crying, soaked in blood, calling out to me. I saw a burning engine block and ran to it and saw a young woman with long hair trapped under it."

A witness spoke of turning over a woman to discover she had been decapitated; another of trying to move bodies thatcame apart in his hands. A third witness saw bodies in a water-filled crater; another told of an injured woman screaming "Where's my baby?"

A local man who tended to a badly injured victim recalled: "He turned his head away from me, let out two big sighs and he was gone."

Photographs were shown of corpses arranged in rows under blood-soaked sheets and curtain material from a nearby shop. A police officer assured the inquest that the bodies, and parts of bodies, had been treated with respect at the scene. Dust and blood were cleaned from the faces of the dead as they lay in the street.

An army doctor recounted how another medic collapsed when they turned over the body of Avril Monaghan to see a sight which, he said, is now "totally burnt" into his memory. Mrs Monaghan was dead and so were her unborn twin girls. So, too, was her 18-month-old daughter Maura, who was found lying beneath her, her hands crossed across her chest.

A local shopkeeper spoke of seeing a teenage girl kneeling beside another girl who had been pronounced dead. She told him: "I'm just holding her hand. I don't want her to be alone."

A barrister appearing at the inquest said yesterday: "Nothing could have prepared one for the full horror that emerged over the weeks that we have heard from the witnesses."

The coroner, John Leckey, added: "I personally found it an emotional experience, the like of which I have never encountered previously and which I will never forget."

After the hearing Michael Gallagher, who lost his son, said: "We have all faltered at different stages ... You do lose hope but, at the end of the day, I am confident we will see convictions for Omagh."

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