Greiving relatives wept openly as a court heard the desperate, dying pleas of a brave schoolgirl as her family home in Omagh went up in flames.
It was a day of raw emotion, anguish and horror as an inquest into the Lammy house fire, which killed a family of seven, opened in Omagh. All seven died when someone, believed to be heavy-drinking depressive Arthur McElhill (33), doused the end-of-terrace house in petrol before setting it alight.
The full horror of what happened on November 13, 2007, was recalled yesterday on the opening day of the inquest into the tragedy.
It included the harrowing final words of Caroline (13), one of the five young children who burned in the inferno.
Her dying words echoed across the hushed courtroom, reducing some to tears and causing others to cover their ears in an attempt to block out the horror. At one point Caroline is heard to say: “Help me I’m burning run”. After a few seconds her voice disappeared. Caroline was later found dead. She was clutching her mobile phone and rosary beads.
Neighbours, relatives and friends of the McElhill family packed Court No 1 as the opening day of the inquest began shortly after midday. Mr McElhill, a serial sex offender who had a history of suicide attempts, perished in the blaze.
His partner Lorraine McGovern, who was 29, and their five children also died in the fire.
Members of the two families were kept apart and faced each other across the wood-panelled courtroom as the traumatic evidence was presented.
They had already been briefed on some of the worst parts, but there were still tears, gasps and horrified looks as it was recalled.
A legal challenge mounted by the McElhill family meant the inquest did not get under way until 12.08pm, beginning with harrowing medical evidence.
There was hushed silence as, victim by victim, two pathologists graphically detailed the horrific injuries sustained in the inferno.
All seven had been alive when the fire started, and all had died from either carbon monoxide poisoning or smoke inhalation.
Their bodies were so badly burned and charred that dental records and DNA were needed to formally identify each victim.
Much of what the pathologists said is too graphic and distressing to be printed.
The medical evidence lasted exactly 30 minutes and was visibly upsetting for the families. Some covered their faces with their hands, others simply closed their eyes.
By the time the details of the seventh and youngest victim — little James McElhill — were read out some had visibly broken down in tears.
That was followed by the recording of Caroline’s desperate 999 call. Eyes were transfixed on the two video screens where the sometimes barely audible dialogue of the teenager’s terrified pleas was subtitled.
The recording lasted around five minutes and 30 seconds, but Caroline spoke for less than a minute.
In the background, the distant screams and cries of family members could be heard. The operator repeatedly called out, trying to re-establish contact. But it was too late. As the call ended a series of gasping noises — thought to be Caroline’s last breaths — are heard.
Before the inquest got under way, the relatives heard the call but when it was replayed in court, some of the McElhill family opted to leave the courtroom.
Some of those who remained covered their ears and cried. Arthur McElhill’s mother, who sat alongside her husband for most of the evidence, covered her face with both hands.
Later, when the inquest resumed for the afternoon session, it heard forensic experts offer their opinions on what caused the fatal blaze.
Both Andrew Wade and Dennis McAuley surmised that an accelerant had been poured in the hall and deliberately lit from within using a naked flame. They recalled how the house was reduced to a charred shell.
Mr McAuley said he believed the fire had been started by someone within the house.
At that point McElhill’s father sighed, while other family members bowed their heads towards the floor.
The court was told that all seven victims were found on the second floor of their home.
McElhill, Ms McGovern and one child were in one room, three other children were in another. The fifth child was in a cot in a third room.