Belfast Telegraph

20 years on, Omagh remembers the 31 lives lost in worst Troubles atrocity

By Claire McNeilly

The prayers were meaningful but no words were really necessary. The most poignant moments were the ones shrouded in silence, when people who gathered here could harness their own private memories of the time when unspeakable evil visited this Co Tyrone town.

Others present yesterday at the Memorial Garden, which opened 10 years ago, were clearly too young to remember, let alone understand.

They live in a world where politicians argue over renewable heat schemes and Brexit, not the fallout from a hitherto idyllic summer afternoon in which men, women, children, toddlers - and even unborn babies - were brutally murdered by heinous individuals who, 20 years on, have still to answer for their deeds.

But this wasn't a day beset by anger and recrimination; rather a solemn, touching occasion for remembering and honouring the 31 souls whose lives were so callously extinguished by a Real IRA car bomb on August 15, 1998.

Indeed, as the opening line of the song Come Join Us At The Water - composed by local musician Daryl Simpson especially for the 20th anniversary - put it: "We have lost our friends and our loved ones for reasons we can't understand..."

This year, like every other, is a time of public reflection and private grief. But the difference is that it's likely to be the last annual public commemoration to remember those killed in the single worst atrocity of the Troubles.

For Cat Wilkinson, sister of 21-year-old victim Aiden Gallagher and daughter of Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Omagh Support and Self-Help Group who organised the event, "the time was right and the momentum was right to let the families be on their own for that day and do their own grieving".

Hundreds gathered in the market town for a special interdenominational service yesterday; those still suffering as a result of the atrocity, as well as those born afterwards, or those too young to remember it at all.

Omagh native Sarah McCormac (34) brought her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hannah. "What happened had such a profound effect on the whole town; it still has," she said.

"I was in getting my school uniform that day. I remember the terror of not knowing what was happening. The surrealness of the event. Of hearing the bomb go off and not knowing what that awful sound was. Then, just the terror.

"At 15 you can't understand what's going on. I really wanted to be here today and I wanted Hannah to be here, to know that the town comes together and doesn't forget - and that we are moving forward."

The ecumenical service was attended by representatives of the British, Irish and Spanish Governments - two victims hailed from Madrid - and included contributions in all three languages. One by one, victims were named in a roll of honour, while floral wreaths were laid in their memory.

Survivors of the attack were there too, alongside first responders who attended the horrific, apocalyptic scene that fateful Saturday afternoon.

Donna Marie McGillion (42), who married fellow survivor Garry (44) six months after the blast, was present to see the couple's daughter Cara (16) sing as part of the Omagh Community Youth Choir.

"It's a very emotional day today and my thoughts are first and foremost with the families of the 31," said Donna Marie, who was one of the worst of the hundreds maimed and injured that day, and initially given only a 20% chance of survival.

"It must be extremely difficult for them 20 years on. It's one of those days when it's hard to know how to sum it all up. I'm not often lost for words but ultimately this has to be about the 31 with us in town that day who aren't with us today - and that's the sad part."

She added: "You never really get away from this. You never truly move on. We try to move forward… I lost consciousness when the bomb went off but I still have all the sounds and I still hear all the screaming... but you just have to get on with it."

Firefighter Paddy McGowan (55) was one of the first on the scene 20 years ago; for him, it often feels like yesterday.

"I know now why forgiveness seems like an impossible thing for people to do," he said. "There were bodies everywhere. People were using doors as stretchers. Women were screaming, children were crying. It's the worst thing I've ever had to attend. It's only this week that I've been able to talk about it."

Shortly after a minute of silence in remembrance, as the choir began singing Across The Bridge Of Hope, the sun suddenly burst through the clouds, bringing more warmth and brightness to a dignified gathering of gentle souls, many of whom are still travelling along their individuals roads.

Stanley McCombe, whose beloved wife Ann was taken that day, said it gets "even tougher as time goes on". He added: "It doesn't seem like 20 years."

He's not alone. Many still feel the devastation and trauma two decades on.

Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife Philomena, said: "The cries of people lying in pain in the street will stay with me until the day I die."

The weather yesterday was pleasant, not unlike 20 years ago when local parents were busy purchasing uniforms for the new school term.

Among those enjoying the afternoon were schoolchildren from Buncrana, accompanied by Spanish friends on an exchange visit. There was, literally, a carnival atmosphere as one had been planned for later in the day. Few people paid any attention to the red Vauxhall Cavalier which was parked around 2pm outside SD Kells in Market Street, one of the town's main suppliers of school uniforms.

Just over half-an-hour later, local police cordoned off High Street after a coded, vague and ultimately misleading phone warning that a large bomb had been planted near the courthouse.

As officers began searching for the device, men, women and children gathered in the perceived safety of Market Street.

The car bomb detonated at 3.10pm, an explosion so powerful that several victims' bodies were never found. Some 21 people died instantly.

Frantic survivors began digging through rubble in an attempt to rescue others, many of whom had lost limbs, and a distraught priest spent hours administering the last rites to those who clearly weren't going to make it.

Four hours after the blast the death toll stood at 28: James Barker; Fernando Blasco Baselga; Geraldine Breslin; Deborah-Ann Cartwright; Gareth Conway; Breda Devine; Oran Doherty; Aiden Gallagher; Esther Gibson; Mary Grimes; Olive Hawkes; Julia Hughes; Brenda Logue; Ann McCombe; Brian McCrory; Samantha McFarland; Sean McLaughlin; Jolene Marlow; Avril Monaghan; Maura Monaghan; Alan Radford; Rocio Abad Ramos; Elizabeth Rush; Veda Short; Philomena Skelton; Fred White; Bryan White and Lorraine Wilson. Sean McGrath lived for another three weeks.

It later emerged that Avril Monaghan, who died alongside her mother Mary Grimes and baby daughter Maura (18 months), had been carrying twins.

Breda Devine was only 20 months old, Oran Doherty eight years old, and the list of those whose lives were extinguished included three 12-year-olds and six teenagers. In all, 30 children lost mothers that day.

Powerful events like yesterday will ensure they will never be forgotten.

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