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The story of a bombing that still strikes terror

The bombing of the La Mon hotel in which 12 people were killed was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Today, on the 20th anniversary of the outrage, security correspondent Chris Thornton describes the human horror of the blasts and the hunt for the bombers.

The bombing of the La Mon hotel in which 12 people were killed was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Today, on the 20th anniversary of the outrage, security correspondent Chris Thornton describes the human horror of the blasts and the hunt for the bombers.

THE story of La Mon began unfolding in the everyday items that were sifted from ash and charred flesh: a dress ring, a metal buckle, a tuft of hair, a clothes peg and pieces of a clock lying in the grass outside.

The tale they told was human, but far from everyday. It was all about the extremes that people can reach: from the man who went back into the inferno for his wife, only to die in the attempt, to the bombers _ men who could spare a woman from a hijacking because they knew her, then condemn to a fiery death a dozen people they never met.

And in the end, if these stories ever have an end, it was about death and blood and nothingness.

For the policemen called in to investigate the bombing, the first pieces were being fitted together even as the dozen corpses pulled from the wreckage were hosed down to prevent them from setting body bags on fire.

One of the first detectives on the scene was horrified at what the blaze had done to human beings. 'It was impossible to recognise any of these persons,' he said, 'or to distinguish between them being male or female.'Almost immediately around 100 detectives were assigned to the case, the worst bombing in Northern ireland since 15 people died in an attack on McGurk's Bar in North Belfast seven years earlier.

Even the IRA admitted La Mon was one of the most shameful episodes in its history, saying it had been 'rightly and severely criticised' by its own members.

The RUC investigation took on three main strands: identification of the dead, determination of the size and effect of the bomb, and the hunt for the bombers.

In terms of the manhunt, the identification of the dead was almost incidental: murder had clearly been committed, no matter who the victims were.

But to the families of the dead, their identities were clearly of utmost importance. 'Look at the Luxor massacre in Egypt and the mix up over the bodies of the victims there,' said one RUC officer, recently discussing La Mon. 'Look at the distress that caused the families and you see why proper identification is so important.'The RUC devoted a squad of detectives under an inspector to work purely on identification with forensic scientists. The task was not only grisly, it was also extremely difficult.

The intensity of the blaze at La Mon had obliterated almost all normal methods of identification and the team had to revert to whatever was to hand.

One woman was identified by the dress ring she wore, another by the buckle from her artificial leg. A tuft of hair which escaped the fire on one body was matched against hair taken from a victim's pillow and hairbrush.

Four victimes were identified only by matching blood groups. Blood was taken from their parents and children to determine their groups, and then matched to tissue.

In the meantime, other experts had determined the make up of the bomb, and said it was the largest blast incendiary used in Northern Ireland at that stage.

The bomb weighed about 45 pounds and had been placed in a leather holdall. At its core was a detonator _ a clothes peg being the ultimate trigger _ a travel alarm clock and a pound of homemade explosives.

Packed around the centre were four gallon tins filled with petrol. The bomb was designed to throw the petrol out and ignite it instantaneously , creating a huge fireball.

Investigators recreated the bomb based on fragments found at the scene, and set their version off to see how big an explosion it created. They estimated that the fireball was 40 feet high and 60 feet wide. When they set it off, shrapnel flew over their heads 400 yards away.

The La Mon bomb had been placed on a windowsill, a few feet from the largest concentration of diners in the hotel's Peacock Room. Eight of the dead were within about 10 feet of the explosion and were undoubtedly engulfed by the initial fireball. A pathologist said they did not all die instantly.

As all this was determined, the manhunt went on. Within hours of the explosion, police arrested 20 people, among them a young republican activist from west Belfast named Gerry Adams.

Adams was never connected to La Mon. He was charged with IRA membership at the end of his detention, but was cleared when the Lord Chief Justice threw the case out of court, citing lack of evidence.

Within a week of the murders, another 13 people had been arrested. But the investigation soon concentrated on one of the first men held, an IRA man and former British soldier from Turf Lodge named Edward Manning Brophy.

Detectives believed Brophy was brigade staff in the Belfast IRA and was responsible for organising the bomb, if not actually planting it.

After attempting suicide during his detention, he was charged with 12 murders. During his 11-week trial, police claimed he made a series of admissions; first saying he had given the bomb to an IRA unit under threat from a 'senior figure', and then admitting direct involvement in the bombing.

However, the judge in the case, Mr Justice Kelly, did not accept the confessions, saying he believed they could have been obtained by inhuman treatment by police.

He jailed Brophy for IRA membership, saying the defendant appeared flattered by the suggestion he commanded the gang in Turf Lodge.

In 1981, as Brophy was freed on appeal, another West Belfast man was put on trial for the murders.

Robert Murphy, who was an unemployed labourer from Norglen Parade at the time of the bombing, had been sent to Dublin by the IRA leadership within hours of the attack.

He was apparently uncomfortable and unhappy there, and had returned to Belfast by 1980, when he was arrested.

Twenty days after his trial began, Murphy pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of the 12 people who died at La Mon.

Lord Justice Gibson sentenced him to life, and said that by his plea, Murphy had accepted that the confessions he made to police were true.

Murphy, who is now out of prison on licence, said he had been sworn into the IRA by Eddie Brophy and told on the day of the bombing to hijack a car.

On his first attempt, he let the driver go because he knew her. He eventually got a small Fiat and found himself in the front of it as it was driven towards La Mon.

He outlined the botched nature of the attack, which led to warnings that the IRA admitted was 'totally inadequare'. The bombers got lost on their way to the hotel, and apparently had difficulty in finding a phone box to telephone the warning on their way back.

Murphy said he heard the results of the bomb later that night. 'I didn't know what to do,' he said. 'I tried to convince myself none of this ever happened.'In his discredited statements, Brophy had said the bombing was 'like a cancer' eating at him.

He never escaped being stained with involvement in the attack. Before his death last year, loyalists targeted him over his association with the bombing, severely wounding him in a gun attack.

In the end, the victims were at least given their names back. Five days after the bombing, as Eddie Brophy, Gerry Adams and 23 others sat in Castlereagh cells and Robert Murphy found himself on the run in Dublin, the last of the bodies was identified.

Four of the final five were matched by blood groups. The last, a woman, was singled out by the elimination of the other 11. She was identified simply because there was nothing left, she could be no one else.



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