'We walked past explosives-laden car'
As young people raised their voices in song inside a cathedral, faceless men intent on mayhem were planting a bomb outside, planning to cause mass murder.
The choristers from both sides of the religious divide were inside St Columb's Cathedral happily rehearsing for a production of Puccini's opera Tosca on Sunday night.
They, their parents and teachers were unaware that just a short distance away was a bomb packed with deadly home-made explosives.
It was set to go off just half-an-hour into their rehearsals.
Dissident republican group Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility for the device and said the bomb contained 200lbs of explosives, including Semtex.
Thankfully the bomb failed to detonate and the children were able to flee to safety, largely unaware of the danger they were in.
One of the choristers was Conor Polley, who unknowingly walked past the car containing the bomb on his way to the rehearsals with his mother Sarah.
She said: “Conor is just nine and thankfully has never experienced anything to do with the Troubles, so he was actually quite excited about the drama of it all. But I was worried.
“We actually walked past the car, completely unaware, and it's today that you think ‘what if'.
“There were young children on skateboards going up and down past the car too, so if it had exploded there would have been a serious loss of young life, not to mention the elderly people from the home. It makes you shudder.”
Jill Duncan had her son Ross (10) in the car on their way to the rehearsals from their home in Drumahoe and was travelling behind a PSNI vehicle as it made its way to Bishop Street.
She said: “I knew by the way the Land Rover was moving that something just wasn't right, so when it stopped and the officers got out, I asked what was wrong.
“When they told me, I made the decision to not let Ross out of the car and just told him the rehearsal had been cancelled.
“He is only 10 and knows nothing about bombs, and I didn't want him frightened to be here.
“I thought it best to keep quiet about bombs.” Some of those rehearsing were in full costume when they had to run from the scene as anxieties grew about the device uncovered inside a beer keg in an abandoned car. Members of the local Codeta adult choir and the director of music at the Western Education and Library Board, Donal Doherty, were also forced to abandon the rehearsal.
The Church of Ireland Dean of Derry, WilIiam Morton, helped reunite children with their parents following the evacuation of his own family from their home next to the cathedral.
Dean Morton’s two youngest sons, Nicky (16) and Connor (12),
were among the dozens of children in the choir on Sunday night.
The Morton family were forced to spend the night with friends in the Waterside and were still unable to get home until late yesterday afternoon.
Dean Morton said: “Cross-community work has been so strong here and it has been going on for years. In terms of the cathedral building, it welcomes people of all Christian religions or those of no religion at all.
“There has always been that co-operation here.
“The people who left this device here did achieve disruption, but they also galvanised the resolve on the part of all right-thinking people to continue on working at what they are doing to maintain and build an open, wholesome community.”
Jeanette Warke of the Shared City Project and the Cathedral Youth Club said that such incidents were instilling fear in children as young as four in the area.
“At the weekend we had them away in Scotland in a safe environment, children of all creeds, and then we bring them back to the Fountain to this yesterday.
“It makes you wonder what are we doing here?”
The Catholic Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty said he was shocked at the “reckless disregard for the sanctity of human life” demonstrated by those behind the attempted bombing.
Oglaigh na hEireann also claimed responsibility for an attempted coffee jar bomb attack on police in the Grosvenor Road area of Belfast that resulted in a lengthy security alert.