Belfast Telegraph

It's 10 years since NI mum Lorraine McGovern and her five children were killed in a house fire by the children's father, Arthur McElhill - their friends and neighbours tell how that horrific night continues to haunt them

A decade ago today a quiet street in Omagh was plunged into unimaginable tragedy. Leona O'Neill visits Lammy Crescent and finds people still reeling from the devastating effects of that horrific night

Leona O'Neill

The sounds of children's laughter is carried from St Conor's Primary School playground across Omagh's Lammy Crescent. On the street, a small enclave of just 30 houses, the sounds of busy family life spills out onto the pavement. Young children are taken by the hand to school. Life plays out as normal.

Ten years ago this morning, the scene was very different. Neighbours stood on the small green at the centre of the street saying the rosary as seven members of the one family lay dead inside the burnt shell of their home.

Stunned and heartbroken, neighbours stood clutching one another in grief as five little coffins - those of Caroline (13), Sean (7), Bellina (4), one-year-old Clodagh and 10-month-old baby James - were carried out of their family home, alongside their mother Lorraine McGovern (29). The children's father, Arthur McElhill, a 36-year-old heavy-drinking depressive with previous rape convictions, also died. He had started the blaze deliberately because Lorraine threatened to leave him. In the days and weeks that followed it emerged that McElhill, who had been having a sexual relationship with an underage girl, doused the hallway of the two-storey terrace house with petrol and white spirit and lit it, preventing any hope of escape.

Neighbours in the quiet, family-oriented street are reluctant to speak about the horrors that unfolded that night. Many, when asked, just shake their heads as tears come to their eyes. The painful memories of one of the darkest days in Omagh's history are too heavy to bear. Neighbours who do speak, don't want to be identified.

One neighbour says he remembers saying the rosary on the communal green as news came from the house that everyone inside had perished.

"It was early morning, around 5am, we were all gathered out on the green," he said. "We thought it was an accidental fire. The two guys who lived across the street were window cleaners. They put their ladders up to see if they could rescue anyone. The father of the house came to the window but went back into the flames.

"The blaze was huge, absolutely raging. The rescue services were there trying to do anything they could to get anybody out, they just simply couldn't, and when they did it was too late, everybody had gone.

"When the news came from the house that everyone inside had died, we were in shock. Someone just started spontaneously saying the rosary, we all joined in. A number of fire officers came and prayed with us too. It was a very emotional moment.

"The feeling in the street was one of absolute devastation. The fact that five children had perished and their father wouldn't let them be rescued, it was beyond comprehension. He took their lives and his wife's life. It was mass murder, there was no other way to describe it.

"When they took the coffins from the house. Five little coffins, plus their mum. It was beyond heartbreaking. I've never seen anything like it.

"There is such a sadness here about the tragedy, even today. Nobody wants to talk about it. I think it's been forgotten in many ways. People have tried to put it to the back of their minds. Neighbours had to have counselling. No one wants to relive those memories. But we think of them always."

Another neighbour said she 'prays for the family every day'.

"The house has been demolished, but you still remember," she said. "I remember that morning. I heard glass breaking, I thought there was an accident in the street and went out. The sound was the windows of the house breaking with the heat of the fire. I heard a lot of screaming coming from the house. That still haunts me. There was nothing anyone could have done.

"My husband was a fireman and all the officers came into our house afterwards to sit down. One of them said that he got one of the children, a little boy, sitting on the stairs. The fumes had got him, I don't think he had suffered.

"I would have seen those little children out playing in the street in front of my house every day. The little boy would have driven around in his toy tractor all day long collecting cola cans off the ground. I would have handed him sweets over my fence. He was such a sweet, gentle little boy. They were such beautiful children. They were well-kept and well-mannered little ones. Those are the memories I want to keep.

"After the tragedy I sent the families Mass cards. I sent one to Lorraine's parents and I sent one to the father's parents also. My heart went out to them. No mother raises a son to do that.

"There was talk about them putting up a plaque at the house, but it was thought that it might upset some of the children walking to school. I think we all remember them every day, we carry them in our hearts and I pray for them every day."

Celia McGinn is vice principal of Sacred Heart College in Omagh, where Caroline was a Year 9 pupil. Ms McGinn (right), remembers the young pupil as a "bright, bubbly girl" whose sudden and tragic loss was felt deeply by the whole Sacred Heart College community.

"I knew Caroline," she said. "She was a lovely, placid girl, always smiling. She was so bright and bubbly and very pleasant to talk to. She had many friends and was so easy to get on with. We have a beautiful piece of artwork that Caroline's classmates made for her following her tragic death on show in the corridor and Caroline's school picture sits in a frame in the school's oratory, a quiet place where students can go to reflect and pray. We remember Caroline and her family at the time of this very difficult anniversary."

The house where the family perished has now been demolished. Another family home was built on the land and the neighbours try to carry on with normal life, and bury the painful tragedy at the back of their minds.

"We will never forget them, ever," one said. "I can still see their faces, the little boy out playing in the street on his tractor, laughing away. Lorraine and Caroline, so happy. Those little babies, so beautiful. That's how I want to remember them. Not how they died."

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