An abandoned table, tea and toast untouched ... a poignant snap from the night special needs children fled in terror
They had been there for just over an hour. Children and young people — regular members of the St Matthew’s Special Needs Club — had just sat down after catching up with each other or playing.
As usual, tables in the parochial hall had been set by volunteers and carers at 6pm.
They were about to have tea and toast, their weekly routine, but they never did.
Instead, the usual buzz inside a hall filled with boys, girls and young people with special needs who regard the club as a “second family”, was interrupted by the sound of bangs from the roof of the hall.
A barrage of missiles, slates and golf balls were bouncing off the roof. Petrol bombs were just missing the building.
It was 7.12pm and within minutes, community workers and members of the church were on the scene trying to evacuate the hall. Violence erupted outside.
CCTV images from the church security cameras captured the frightening moments petrol bombs exploded close to the church at 7.20pm.
Police were attempting to calm the situation.
Inside, among the volunteer carers, was a 33-year-old mother-of-four.
“We just heard these bangs. We ran in and thought it was something happening in the kitchen,” she said.
“Then three men ran in and said the church was being attacked and we had to get the kids out. A real sense of panic broke out,” she said.
“I’ve been volunteering here since I was 12. For this to happen was just awful — having to just try and grab the children, wait until it was safe and then take them outside while all of that is going on.
“Running into a crowd of people from the Short Strand wanting to defend the area — it was just horrendous.”
The woman, who didn’t want to be named, said while some anxious parents met the children they had to try and get others — some in wheelchairs — into cars and to safety.
“Some of the children may not have understood what was going on, but you just don’t know how this will impact on them,” she said. “They were asking why they had to leave. How do you explain that?
“It was only for a few minutes but it must have felt like forever when you are in that situation.”
One of the parents was Philip O Runai (53) from the Short Strand. His daughter Niamh, who has Down’s Syndrome, has been going to the club since she was a baby.
After receiving a phonecall he drove round to try and rescue his daughter, now 22, who was caught up in the violence.
He said the group is an important part of her routine.
“The first thing is you are relieved and you can get your child out and get her to safety.
“The anger comes after that. It’s wrong, just wrong. The church is supposed to be a sanctuary,” he said.
Mr O Runai added that the work of the group is vital not just for those who attend but for the families.
“It is an important service for us as parents and for young people to engage and see something outside their own home environment.
“Some of the kids don’t get out at all apart from that so it is important. The club is run on a completely voluntary basis. Things have to continue.
“The area has been under sporadic attack for the last six weeks. This seemed a bit more pre-planned and deliberate. It is concerning. It has to stop.”
The morning after the attack golf tees, broken glass and remnants of paint bombs covered the church grounds as families went to Mass, or dropped their children off to school.
Politicians and members of the Protestant clergy from across Northern Ireland called in to offer support.
William Ward from Short Strand, who spent the night in the church, was alerted to the problem within minutes.
“When the police arrived in numbers we had already started to evacuate the children, but everything was just left — their tea, their toast, their toys.
“I spoke to the head carer who said the children were very upset, their whole routine was upset. It was truly frightening.
“We just want to make it safe for them to come back.
“The parents were standing there waiting.
“It was only a couple of minutes but in that situation it seems like 20.”
Walking around the church inspecting the damage, one of the church workers said: “There are bullet holes in the walls of St Matthew’s from previous attacks over the decades.
“There are still paint splatters over the walls of the church, they are just hard to remove.
“People are resigned that there will be trouble. The church has survived before. We just want it to end now.”