‘We were terribly injured, but we’re the lucky ones’
Published 13/08/2008 | 12:39
Claire Gallagher, then 15, was blinded in the Omagh bombing, while Stephen Coyle, just nine years old at the time, suffered massive injuries. But, as they tell Iain Webster for two special BBC NI documentaries being screened tonight and tomorrow, they were fortunate — because they survived
Like any bride on her wedding morning, Claire Gallagher had "just a few butterflies" as her mum Marie and excited sisters Gemma, Elaine and Karen crowded into her bedroom to help her get ready.
As the final touches were put to her hair, Claire's necklace sparkled in my camera light as I filmed the final sequences for the BBC Northern Ireland documentary, Omagh — The Legacy: Ten Years On.
Claire has never seen her wedding dress or the beautiful silk shoes that her mum helped her choose. For the past 10 years, Claire has been blind.
At 15, Claire was caught in the murderous blast of the Real IRA car bomb which brought carnage to that market town on a busy Saturday afternoon. She was happily shopping with her school friends that day. It was a Saturday ritual, a chance to relax and enjoy a few laughs and maybe pick up a new top for going out later.
With the political process quietly progressing, the prospect of a terrorist car bomb exploding was far from everyone's minds.
"When the police started moving us away from the top of the street we just thought it was a sad hoax," said Claire.
No one realised that because of inaccurate warnings from the terror group, people were being moved closer to the bomb and the massive devastation it would cause.
That summer in 1998 I was just ending my long journalistic career with BBC Northern Ireland and was planning setting up my new TV production company. I proposed that I would work as a video journalist and shoot a film myself to show the courage of those who survived the bomb.
The BBC didn't hesitate. They knew I had to get fast clearance from the families and the surgeons, doctors and nurses to be able to record the stories. I contacted Liam Neeson and he immediately agreed to narrate.
Claire and her parents allowed me to film those months of operations and hospital visits. Omagh — The Legacy had exclusive footage of Claire's meeting with Bill and Hillary Clinton in Washington, before she played piano live on stage with musician Phil Coulter.
Stephen Coyle was the other child victim in the documentary. Just nine years old, he suffered massive internal injuries and a terrible shoulder wound as he and his parents were caught in the blast. As the small boy sat up in his hospital bed, he remembered how his dad Francis had found him among the rubble. "He picked me up but he couldn't carry me for long because blood was pouring down his arm. My mummy told me not to leave her."
I filmed as surgeons tried to repair his shoulder. They'd never seen an injury like it before. "We were left with fragments of bone, eggshells of bone to try and put together to try and see if you could stabilise anything," said surgeon Harry Cowie, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children
In 1999 the RAF took Stephen and his father on a helicopter journey back over the town.
We all looked down on the flattened and cleared bomb site, a place which will forever be remembered for the outrage inflicted on young and old, Catholics and Protestants, townsfolk and visitors. I've spent many more months of late filming with Claire and Stephen for the second part of the documentary series, which will be shown tomorrow night on BBC One Northern Ireland.
Omagh — The Legacy: Ten Years On catches up with Claire, now 25, and Stephen, who is now 19. Again Liam Neeson narrates.
Claire regards herself as one of “the lucky ones”, even though both of her eyes were damaged beyond repair: "During the first month of operations I was just hoping that I would get some sight back and maybe things would be ok," said Claire, " but I kind of got used to living that month without sight and realised I'd be able to get on with life."
I chatted with Claire as she prepared the dinner, easily moving around the kitchen, chopping up vegetables and stir frying as though she'd never lost her sight. She explains that occasionally she bumps into things, "but that's just me being silly!" I watch her navigate her Belfast home with huge admiration. Claire began to help the Royal National Institute for the Blind as a volunteer counsellor. And that's what she works at today, helping people overcome the challenges they face when losing their sight.
"I love doing what I do so much," said Claire. She recently won two prestigious training awards at glittering ceremonies in Belfast and London.
Over at Newtownards airfield, a small helicopter's rotor blades begin to turn. Sitting beside the pilot for a helicopter lesson is Stephen Coyle, who's working towards his career goal of becoming a commercial pilot. "When I was flown over Omagh by the RAF I was watching the pilots very closely. I knew then that one day I could be a pilot," said Stephen. He's already had lessons in fixed wing aircraft and plans to go to university.
Stephen has also thrown himself into the energetic sport of road racing (cycling), thinking nothing of riding 70 miles in an event. "If I stop training for a while," said Stephen. "I seem to get a sore arm more often, but when I'm training it's fine.
"The bomb is the thing that's pushing me" says Stephen. "I've realised that you only have one shot at life and you can't waste it."
This new documentary also tells the stories of two families who lost their young sons.
I went to Madrid to meet Manual Blasco and his wife Lucrecia Blasco Baselga.
Twelve-year-old Fernando was staying in Buncrana with his older brother and sister on a foreign language study trip.
"When I arrived in Northern Ireland I was taken into a room to be told Fernando was dead and my daughter, Lucrecia, was injured, " said Mrs Blasco Baselga. "It was like being tortured, like
someone ripping away part of you."
When his parents returned home with their son's body there was another heartbreaking moment when a letter arrived in the post, sent to them by Fernando days before his death.
"The letter contained a packet of polo sweets," said Mr Blasco, who was himself caught up in an ETA bomb blast in Madrid in the early 90s. "It was so sad but it meant we could connect with him even though he wasn't with us any more."
The Spanish boy had become great friends with 12-year-old James Barker, an English boy who'd moved with his mother, sisters and brother to live in Buncrana just 11 months earlier.
His mother, Donna-Maria, told me of the moment she and her solicitor husband Victor had to identify James' body.
"I could see this green blood-stained sheet over him and a piece of cloth covered his face. It was taken off and James' eyes were wide open. Beautiful green eyes. I wrapped my arms around his head and he was very cold. I never knew how green his eyes were until that moment."
Victor has spent the last 10 years fighting to bring to justice those responsible for the bomb.
"The bomb had consequences for everyone involved, " said Victor. "It certainly had consequences for me and my wife and also for my children. My reaction was to come into work and put my head down and pursue justice.”
"I've lost 10 years of my life with anger and bitterness," says Donna- Maria. “I've lost 10 years of my children growing up and I want to put that right for the next 10 years and make good ... somehow."
Omagh — The Legacy, Ten Years On ends with exclusive pictures taken from the wedding video which Claire asked me to shoot for her and her husband, Ryan, last year. We've kept in touch over the years and I'm privileged to have been allowed back into her life and those lives of the other courageous families in these films.
Omagh — The Legacy, tonight, BBC One NI, 10.45pm. Omagh —The Legacy: Ten Years On, tomorrow, BBC One NI, 10.35pm