Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

How we survived terror

The targeting of teenagers and children in the Manchester atrocity has shocked the world. At 15, Claire Bowes was blinded in the Omagh bomb while Damien Walsh was murdered at 17. Claire and Damien's mum reflect on life after tragedy

By Kim Bielenberg

Claire Bowes can relate to the experiences of the victims injured in the Manchester bomb. She has been through the ordeal of a calamitous explosion herself.

She was blinded instantly in the bomb that killed 29 people at Omagh, but was determined to rebuild her life.

Claire is now a busy mother, married, with three children, and runs her own music academy in her home town.

On that summer day in 1998, as a bright 15-year-old, she went into Omagh with her friends for a day's shopping.

"On that day I was carefree - the way you should be as a teenager," she recalls. "I was into Boyzone, like many teenagers at the time. I loved music and I played the piano."

After 2.30pm there was a warning that a bomb would go off near the town's courthouse. But the warning proved inaccurate and it exploded close to where Claire and her friends were standing.

The Manchester bomb is in some ways comparable to what happened in Omagh, where there were many young victims. The death toll included children and teenagers from a wide area.

"When the bomb went off, suddenly everything changed, as it has done for so many in Manchester," Claire says.

She lost consciousness for a few minutes after she was hit by a piece of shrapnel. Amid frantic scenes on the rubble-strewn street, her friends tried to move her, but she would not budge.

But then she came around, and remembers what happened from that moment on.

A stranger came to her assistance, and organised a van to take her to hospital. She was brought to the hospital where her mother worked as a radiographer, and she was then airlifted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

"When I look back, there was the feeling in my head of how lucky I was to still be here.

"The piece of metal went across my left eye and was embedded in my right eye. If that had been slightly higher or lower, I mightn't have been here today."

For the doctors at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the casualties of bomb blasts were all too familiar in the Troubles, as were the victims of shootings and other types of paramilitary violence.

Professor Rab Mollan, who served for decades as a surgeon at the hospital, knows what it is like to deal with the aftermath of a bomb such as that in Manchester.

He dealt with children and adults who had been caught in blasts, including those with shrapnel injuries.

"Children can bounce back from these tragedies and they heal very quickly," says professor Mollan.

"If they have a disability as a result of the bomb, they often cope much better than adults and tend to get on with life."

Claire Bowes believes it was "the stubbornness of being a teenager" that allowed her to adjust to her new life without sight.

"Nobody tells a 15-year-old that they are not going to do something.

"I was determined to show people that I could do things. I was also determined that I was not going to let the people who planted the bomb ruin my life."

But of course it was not easy for Claire as she tried to rebuild her life.

She could no longer read and had to learn how to touch-type in order to continue her school studies.

"I even had to relearn how to make a cup of tea, and find my way around the house. I had to organise my clothes, so I knew where everything was."

When her friends went back to school in September, she was bored, and wanted to go back as well. She wanted things to return to normal.

Claire was able to return after Halloween and fitted back into the class. "My friends were a great support and included me in everything," she says. "I still went to teenage discos afterwards. I still have the same friends today.

"My parents were just happy that I had survived, but they did not wrap me in cotton wool. They allowed me to get on with my life."

Claire believes that the bomb helped to bring the community in Omagh together.

She says that there is now more integration between both sides of the religious divide.

After what had happened to her, she received help from total strangers. Richard Moore, who had been blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier in Derry in 1972, contacted her and travelled to Omagh to offer her support and advice.

"That was so helpful because I had never met a blind person before."

After the bomb, Claire had some counselling, but she believes the psychological effects did not really hit home until some time afterwards.

"From the time the bomb happened I was afraid to stay in the house on my own or sleep in a room on my own, and that went on for a few years. I was too scared to be on my own. I also didn't want to use a cane to get around."

When she was 17, Claire had cognitive behavioural therapy, which is often used for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She says this helped her to overcome her fears, and reason in her head that there was little chance of an incident such as this happening to her again.

“Now I have no problem being on my own in the house, and sometimes I am happy to have a bit of time to myself.”

She then trained with a guide dog and learned how to get around with a cane.

“I still had ambitions and a life to live, and I was determined that I would make the most of it — and do what I wanted to do.”

Music had always been a passion, and she was able to resume playing the piano, learning off pieces by ear.

“It was not too difficult because you don’t look at the keys much when you are playing anyway.”

After doing her A-levels, Claire studied music at Queen’s University.

Claire got a job as a liaison officer with the Royal National Institute of Blind People, offering support and advice to those who have lost their sight.

She enjoyed the job, but wanted to fulfil her ambition to set up a music school.

“I opened my music academy in 2013, and thankfully it is going really well.”

She has known her husband Ryan since they were both children. They started going out in the year after the bomb, and have been together ever since.

He is a computer specialist who now helps train blind people in the use of technology.

Surprisingly perhaps, Claire is not angry with the perpetrators of the Omagh bomb from the Real IRA, but occasionally she does still feel angry that she cannot see.

“Like Manchester, it should never have happened,” she says of the bomb that really marked the end of Troubles. “Omagh was the final straw and I think things have moved on here since then.”

Claire suffered the effects of the Omagh blast as a child, but she now reflects on what happened in Manchester as a parent.

“My oldest child is eight and one of the first victims of the bomb named in Manchester was an eight-year-old. That just seems incomprehensible really.”

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph