Belfast Telegraph

Forty years of heartbreak - victims of the La Mon bomb remembered

Nearly 100 friends and relatives of the dead and injured attend poignant service

By Ivan Little

Courageous 94-year-old Rita Crawford cut a heartbreakingly sad figure as she sat in her wheelchair, alone with her thoughts at the remembrance service for the 12 victims of the La Mon bomb.

Rita, who lost her only daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ian McCracken in the brutal IRA attack 40 years ago, overcame her physical frailties and anguish to attend the poignant memorial.

And she watched as a clergyman broke down during his address as he revealed his fireman father was one of the first on the scene of the horrific carnage.

The Rev Mark Brown choked back tears as he recalled how his dad Billy, a member of a search and rescue team, was so traumatised by what he saw at La Mon that he could never speak about it.

"All he would say was that we mustn't forget," said Mr Brown, who apologised for becoming emotional at the service in the headquarters of Lisburn and Castlereagh council.

But the minister of Granshaw Presbyterian Church, opposite the bomb-ravaged hotel, wasn't the only one.

There were tears too as representatives of the families of all 12 victims each placed a single lily into a wreath and as a La Mon memorial window was rededicated, to the sound of a violinist playing Amazing Grace.

Organisers hadn't been sure if Rita Crawford would be well enough to join them. But she was determined to be there. Accompanied by two nieces, the redoubtable Mrs Crawford travelled from her Ballyclare nursing home to honour Elizabeth and Ian.

Rita revealed that Ian had escaped from the inferno but went back inside to search for his wife.

Neither came out again.

"It's 40 years on but I still miss them every day," said Rita. "What happened at our wee collie club dinner was unforgivable."

Eileen Neeson (81), whose husband Tommy and mother Sally Cooper died in the blast, said she was lucky to escape with her life. Her dress saved her.

She said: "There was something about the material it was made from that resisted the flames, but I was still in hospital for a fortnight with burns."

Nearly 100 friends and relatives of the dead and the 23 injured met up at the service for the first time in years.

And the unspoken thought was that some of them may never see each other again. For the memorial service is expected to be the last one that will ever be held.

The passage of time has seen the passing of a number of the survivors and the bereaved.

Four decades on, several survivors weren't able to find the strength to go to the service.

The mother of one woman said: "My daughter, who was there that night, still can't have anything to do with La Mon. And she couldn't bring herself to come to the service."

For others, even the obligatory safety announcements before the service were difficult.

One woman who suffered burns at La Mon said she had only recently been able to go out at night, but preferred that if she was away from home it was during daylight hours.

Among the people at the service was 86-year-old Belle Savage, who was working behind the bar at a motorcycle club function at La Mon on February 17, 1978. She said: "There was pandemonium after the blast. My first concerns were for my two daughters, who were serving the food at the dinner dance in the Peacock Room.

"Thankfully they were alright. But it was clear that a lot of people were dead or injured.

"I was asked to push a button that was connected to a police station to alert them. But I have no idea if it was working."

Later on that night, as a shocked Belle and her daughters were driven home, they passed a car, which it later transpired had been abandoned by the IRA bombers.

One of Belle's memories of the aftermath of the atrocity is how, for a long time, burnt bank notes circulated in temporary premises opened on the La Mon site.

"It was a horrible, tangible reminder of that awful night," said Belle.

Andrew Huddleson, whose family owned the hotel, was working there that night. He said he never got over what he witnessed.

"And there were other reminders," he added. "For years, reports in the media about incendiary blasts would refer to them as 'La Mon' style devices."

Many of the people at the service were, however, too young to remember the firebombing, which happened seven years before East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson was born.

"I learnt to swim at La Mon but as I grew up I did discover all about the horror of what the IRA did," said Mr Robinson, whose party leader Arlene Foster was also at the service.

She infamously angered La Mon families by singing 'Arlene's on Fire' - a spin-off of the Will Grigg football song - at La Mon after a DUP conference in November 2016.

On Saturday Mrs Foster sat alongside other party leaders - Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance's Naomi Long and Jim Allister of the TUV.

But the day wasn't about politics. And one survivor who'd planned to read out a statement to journalists criticising Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams, who was arrested after La Mon, kept his notes in his pocket.

Rev Brown did, however, have a message for the political leaders in his midst.

He prayed that they would "make right and difficult decisions" to help bring peace and prosperity for people here. Mr Brown said the bomb changed lives for ever and he said its impact was on a wide scale.

He added that as the 40th anniversary approached, people had been visiting his church to share their memories of the outrage.

One man called to make a confession, said Mr Brown, who added: "He'd felt guilty for 40 years because he sneaked out to have a cigarette when the bomb went off."

The La Mon families said they found the service uplifting.

Billy McDowell, whose wife Lily was the most seriously burnt survivor, said: "It was very emotional, but it was important to remember the bomb.

"Many of the survivors, including Lily, have died in the last few years and it's likely that this will have been the last memorial service."

Andrea Nelson, who read one of the lessons, was only 14 when the bomb killed her parents Dorothy and Paul.

She said: "It was a beautiful service and my sister Melanie and I are grateful that people are still remembering."

The La Mon window that was rededicated was moved from the old Castlereagh council offices in Belfast along with a similar memorial to all the innocent victims of the Troubles.

Mr Brown said he prayed there would never be another La Mon but he hoped the windows would remind future generations of that "terrible" night four decades ago.

He recalled how a cousin who was at La Mon spoke about seeing charred remains being dragged from the hotel.

He added: "They weren't even recognisable as bodies.

"Some of the remains were brought to the minor hall of our church."

Mr Brown said that like his father were never given any counselling after major incidents like La Mon.

He added: "My dad was handed a half bottle of brandy and told to come back to work the next day. That's how they dealt with it."

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