Quietly, as though going to church, Omagh's victims prepared to relive that terrible day

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The Independent Online

With quiet dignity, relatives of the casualties of Omagh filed into the coroner's court where the details of how their loved ones died are to be given. It promises to be a slow, painstaking, heartbreaking process.

With quiet dignity, relatives of the casualties of Omagh filed into the coroner's court where the details of how their loved ones died are to be given. It promises to be a slow, painstaking, heartbreaking process.

Their entry yesterday was not dramatic; they moved quietly in single file as though going into church, edging along the rows of seats. A few huddled to speak quietly together, but most simply took their seats in a reserved manner.

What was striking was their sheer number. First a dozen were to be seen, then another dozen, until the rows were filled. By the time they had settled in there were scores of bereaved people, stoically waiting to hear the worst.

There were injured people there too, including Donna Marie McGillion, who since the explosion has gone through life with her face encased in a transparent plastic mask. She is a symbol of suffering and survival, having made a strong recovery after the blast inflicted 60 per cent burns, causing doctors to give her only a 20 per cent chance of staying alive.

Before the hearing began, many attended a morning reflection, organised by Protestant and Catholic clergy to help them "to compose themselves for the events of the day ahead and find the strength to face the truth of each day with the grace of God". Some relatives will stay away from the proceedings, unable to face the prospect of such an ordeal.

Others are determined to see it through and want the shocking details aired, in the almost certainly forlorn hope that this will produce contrition in the bombers.

A team of 60 bereavement counsellors has been assembled, with at least 15 on duty at any time. And rooms has been set aside for family members.

A million and a half pounds has been spent on turning the local leisure centre into a venue suitable for such an occasion. Of this £250,000 was used to transform a basketball court into an inquest court, carpeting the floor, curtaining the walls and providing computerised equipment.

Even so, the venue presents difficulties, as the coroner, John Leckey, noted in his opening statement. Two years ago, in the turmoil which followed the explosion, the leisure centre became the emergency headquarters where people with missing relatives gathered.

Some spent almost 24 hours waiting to hear if relatives were dead, injured or safe. One witness described the scene after the bomb: "It was chaotic, people were crying. When we went to identify the dead children it was like walking along Death Row."

Yesterday's return was another ordeal for many in theirunremitting nightmare. It has been made no easier by the fact that only one person has been charged in connection with the disaster, and by the fact that the bombers, the so-called Real IRA, are still in business.

The inquest will be gruelling too for police and emergency services people. Many have had counselling to try to come to terms with the truly unspeakable sights and the thought that they could somehow have helped to avert it all.

Only a minority of those who died came from Omagh itself; many of the victims were from across the border in the Republic, and from as far away as Spain. But the town is still struggling with the effects of the attack, which has made it synonymous with senseless carnage. Some of the damaged buildings have been repaired and are again in use, but workmen are still busy on others that were demolished or badly damaged by the blast.

Yet Protestant-Catholic relations have not been embittered by the bomb, everyone says, partly because it achieved a parity of destruction, killing people from both sides.

A former town councillor explained yesterday: "If the bomb was designed to set the people of Omagh at each other's throats it has had quite the opposite effect. It may be a cliché, but it did unite them in mourning and grief."

Yesterday, as the relatives in the leisure centre steeled themselves to work through this latest ordeal, a little card on a wreath in the garden expressed the heartfelt longing for peace and the healing of wounds.

Written in memory of an eight-year-old victim called Oran Doherty, it said simply: "Oran, You are at Peace now, wee man. They won't hurt you now, Angel."

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