La Mon bombing: A split second of evil... and then they were orphans
One night 35 years ago, Andrea and Melanie Nelson's parents went out to a dinner dance and never came back. They died in the IRA La Mon bombing. For their daughters, the battle to survive without them was just the beginning.
‘She's had to travel a long and painful road since she and her teenage sister were orphaned by one of the IRA's most savage bomb attacks 35 years ago but there's still one journey that Andrea Nelson simply can't and won't undertake.
And the resolute Dundonald woman, who now lives in Yorkshire, says she will never go anywhere near the La Mon House Hotel in the Castlereagh Hills above Belfast.
For that's where Andrea and her sister Melanie lost their parents Dorothy and Paul Nelson in the infamous bombing which killed a total of 12 people — seven of them women — on February 17, 1978 when some of the victims were burned beyond recognition.
The Nelsons, who weren't ones for socialising on a regular basis, had accompanied friends to the hotel for a Friday night dinner dance organised by the Irish Collie Club after ensuring that 13-year-old Melanie and Andrea, who was a year older, were in safe hands back home.
Andrea recalls: “They didn't go out very often. We were basically a quiet little family unit of four and it was a big thing for mum and dad to attend a function with their chums.”
However, it was a night out which was ruthlessly cut short by one of the most lethal bombs ever assembled by the IRA, one which was later likened to the type of horrific device which might have been seen in the war in Vietnam.
The blast bomb was attached to four large petrol cans, all of them filled with a home-made napalm-like mixture of petrol and sugar which was designed to stick to whatever or whoever it hit.
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The IRA said they tried to give a warning but claimed a telephone box wasn't working and shortly afterwards a huge fireball — over 60ft wide and 40ft high — engulfed the guests in La Mon's Peacock Room, creating a scene of almost unspeakable carnage which still haunts many of the survivors three-and-a-half decades on.
The Nelsons quite simply didn't stand a chance. Andrea now knows that her parents were seated right beside the huge bomb which had been hung with a meat hook on to a window grille.
One of their friends was also killed. Another member of their party survived. “I think she had just popped out to the toilet,” says Andrea.
Back in 1978 in their house at Brooklands Gardens in Dundonald, the Nelsons' daughters were blissfully unaware of their parents' deaths, even though Andrea had seen TV coverage of the atrocity.
“I didn't know the name of the place they had gone to for their evening out,” says Andrea, who was babysitting for a family next door. “I actually saw the fire on the television news but I didn't realise my mum and dad were there.”
The Nelsons' neighbours returned around midnight and Andrea immediately saw that they were upset. “They asked if our parents had got back yet but when we said no, they told us they'd been at the hotel which was wrecked by the explosion”
It was then that the sisters' happy and secure world started to fall apart. Their minister, the late Rev Roy Magee, was to describe their despair as he addressed mourners at their parents' funeral in his Presbyterian Church at Dundonald.
Talking directly to the Provisional IRA he said: “Try to picture the scene at 4.30am on Saturday when two young girls were still waiting in vain for their parents to come home. Ponder the agony and heartbreak you have caused to so many families but remember that though you may escape the law of man, you cannot escape the law of God.”
Mr Magee, who became a central figure in moves to persuade loyalist paramilitaries to stop their violence, had gone to Brooklands after the bombing to see if he could help the Nelson sisters.
Andrea says: “In the hours after the blast there was a lot of confusion as relatives tried to find out about their loved ones. Some people were in hospital, some had gone home from La Mon. But we didn't know what had happened and it was almost like a period of a dawning realisation that our parents weren't coming back.”
Mr Magee liaised between the families and the police and hospital authorities. Tragically he held out little hope for Andrea and Melanie. Andrea says: “The strange thing was that because our parents didn't return and because of the ferocity of the bomb there wasn't any way of identifying them positively for days and days. We had to provide hair brushes and toothbrushes from the house to try and match them with the remains.
“The penny was dropping with us slowly rather than anyone telling us definitively that our parents were dead. There was always the straw to clutch on to that they might have been in hospital somewhere or they might have been wandering around Castlereagh with head injuries, having lost their memories.
“Obviously you want to have any options rather than the one you think is coming towards you.”
It was nearly a week before Andrea and Melanie received confirmation that their parents had perished in the devastation at La Mon. “With the limited techniques 35 years ago, the forensics people had a real challenge giving any certainty. I suppose the advances in DNA would make it all very different nowadays”
The sense of emptiness was now complete for the girls who no longer had “two important members of their little team of four” in their lives, but their relatives rallied around them.
At first they lived with an aunt and uncle in Chester but after the summer of 1978 they returned to Northern Ireland where their grandparents looked after them as they went back to Bloomfield Collegiate on the Upper Newtownards Road.
The sisters, who were always close to each other, became inseparable after the deaths of their parents. “There's a bond there which will never be broken,” says Andrea.
After leaving school, the girls enrolled in English universities with Andrea studying mechanical engineering and then nursing before working towards a PhD in bio-engineering, while Melanie qualified as a nursery nurse.
The two sisters travelled extensively to further their careers but they've now settled 40 minutes from each other near Leeds.
Andrea is a nurse and a professor of wound healing at the University of Leeds and Melanie has just graduated with a degree in sociology and criminology.
And it was Melanie's successful return to her studies which prompted the sisters to write a letter earlier this week to the Belfast Telegraph — where their mum was a secretary in the Seventies — to thank the people of Northern Ireland for the huge impact they'd made on their lives.
“This letter of thanks is long overdue,” wrote the girls. “But we want to acknowledge our gratitude to everyone who contributed to a public collection in 1978. That generosity has allowed us both to pursue our education.”
The money raised for the La Mon families helped the sisters to buy a small house of their own in London, a place they could call home in the absence of a family base back in Belfast.
“We didn't have a mum and dad to go home to but we had each other, to have a home for each other. That fund made a real difference to our lives because we were able to go on with our studying rather than having to get a job as we didn't have our parents to assist us financially,” says Andrea.
The sisters have also thanked their family, friends and schoolteachers at Bloomfield for being their rocks in their crisis years. Andrea says: “We lost a massive part of our lives when we were just ordinary young girls but we're grateful to so many people who gave us a safe and stable anchor.”
Despite all the trauma and turmoil of the sisters' youth, Andrea still calls Northern Ireland home and clearly has a deep and abiding affection for the province that she left behind in her quest for a new life in Britain.
She says: “I married a Scotsman and I took him home to show him that Scotland wasn't a patch on Northern Ireland. We don't get back as often as I would like but I always visit my parents' grave at Redburn Cemetery. But I've never seen La Mon and I never will. That's a blank page which I want to remain a blank page.”
The La Mon massacre has been the subject of an investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team and last year the Nelson sisters, like the families of all the victims, received an 81-page report about the killings though many of the documents relating to the original RUC probe were missing.
A number of the La Mon survivors called for a public inquiry after questioning if the disappearance of the files was linked to a bid to protect IRA members now involved in the peace process.
Andrea Nelson prefers to keep her own counsel about the HET inquiry. “They've done their bit and they produced a comprehensive narrative of all the information they had but the passage of time from 1978 has meant that there's no prospect of more cases being brought.
“However, I don't feel I am able to judge whether or not the investigation was satisfactory.”
Two men were arrested and tried on charges linked to the outrage. Edward Manning Brophy was acquitted and Robert Murphy, who pleaded guilty to 12 counts of manslaughter, was jailed for life in 1981 but freed 14 years later. Both men are now dead.
Neither Andrea nor Melanie have maintained any real contacts with the rest of the La Mon families.
An aunt was closely involved with Iris Robinson and Castlereagh Borough Council as they developed plans for a La Mon memorial but she died around 10 years ago.
An Ulster exile she may be, but Andrea isn't fixated on what goes on back home.
She accepts that she's probably moved on in more ways than one.
“I've kept my accent but I haven't kept up my interest in Northern Irish politics,” she says.
Melanie has a 12-year-old daughter but Andrea hasn't any children. “I've been too busy,” she says.
Andrea says she hasn't allowed herself to think too much about the IRA terrorists who killed her mother and father. “We dwelt instead on surviving and making our parents proud of us,” she says. “We didn't want to spend all our time being reactive to negative things and not being in charge of our own lives.
“So our determination was that while the bombers took something from us, they weren't going to take everything. If we had lived our lives according to anger or spite, we would have been the worse off and the people who did it would have moved ahead. The only losers would have been us.”
* The restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel, in Gransha, Co Down, was bombed by the IRA on February 17, 1978. The attack was thought to be part of the Provo terror campaign against economic targets.
* At the time of the blast there were 450 diners, hotel staff and guests inside the hotel.
* Twelve people were killed when the bomb detonated, and a further 30 were injured. The fatalities included 11 Protestant civilians and one Royal Ulster Constabulary officer.
* The IRA claimed that it had tried to telephone the hotel to warn them about the explosion but, due to various obstacles, was only able to do so nine minutes before detonation.
* The day after the bombing the IRA admitted responsibility and apologised for the inadequate warning.
* In the aftermath of the attack 25 people were arrested, including Gerry Adams, who was released from custody in July 1978 and became president of Sinn Fein two months later.
* In September 1981 Belfast man Robert Murphy was handed 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy was freed from prison on licence in 1995.