Nightmare of man who drove across Belfast with a huge bomb in the back seat of his car
Chris Kilpatrick and Claire McNeilly trace the events of Sunday night which could have so easily ended in tragedy
It was just a 10-minute journey but it must have felt like an eternity. Having set out to spend the evening in the company of his family, an innocent man found himself driving towards Belfast city centre with a primed bomb on his back seat.
His ordeal began when he was confronted in the north of the city by three masked men in boilersuits at around 9.30pm on Sunday.
They told the man they knew who he was and where he and his family members lived.
The terrified driver was then ordered to remain in the vehicle while the men loaded the lethal 60kg beer-keg bomb into his Renault Laguna car.
He was told to take the vehicle to Victoria Square complex and leave it in the underground car park.
The man then made the nightmarish two-and-a-half mile journey from Jamaica Street to the city centre, all the while sitting just inches from a device that senior police said "would have killed him outright".
Other motorists and revellers went about their business oblivious to the potentially devastating cargo within the Laguna as it made its way through the centre of town and onto Victoria Street.
Rather than drive the car under the shopping complex as instructed, the man abandoned the vehicle at the entrance to Victoria Square's car park and ran across the street to Musgrave Police Station.
"This was a terrifying experience for that poor driver, because as he was going along the device was situated right behind him," said Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris. "He was driving along with a live device which, if it had detonated – even partially – would have caused him very severe injury or death.
"A full explosion would have killed him outright. It is a reckless thing to plant such a large device in the city centre.
"It is many years since we have had such a direct attack in the city centre of such scale."
A large security operation got under way immediately, with several roads closed and hundreds of people evacuated from nearby homes and businesses.
Queen's University student Matt Jamison (25) said he stayed with friends after being told to leave his Chichester Street apartment.
"I heard a lot of shouting outside and when I went to the balcony I saw a lot of police cars and I noticed there were a lot of police officers in the area," he said. "The street was blocked off from the Top Man store in Victoria Square to the Garrick bar and traffic was being diverted.
"I also watched police sniffer dogs going around cars and bins.
"I think it was around 9pm when I saw the police trying to get into our apartment block and they began working their way up from the bottom to the top telling people to leave.
"Officers told us to bring any medication with us as it was unlikely that we would get back in. They told us to go to the Ulster Hall which was where everyone who had been evacuated was being directed.
"The residence apartments at Victoria Square are very popular and often rented by tourists. During the security alert on Sunday night there were a number of American and Spanish people who seemed really worried."
Lyric Theatre digital media technician intern Evan Armstrong (21) and his 22-year-old girlfriend Kirsty Conroy, both from Lisburn, were evacuated from the Odeon cinema in the Victoria Square complex.
"My girlfriend and I had been for a meal in the TGI Fridays restaurant and we had just got our tickets to see the 9.30pm showing of Thor 2 when the alarm went and we were told to leave," he said.
"There were flashing lights and police cars everywhere and police officers walking around with guns, which was frightening.
"I have been in a couple of bomb scares before so I stayed relatively calm, but Kirsty was terrified.
"Fortunately the cinema wasn't very busy on Sunday night so there wasn't a stampede of people trying to escape and there were only 30 or 40 of us gathered outside afterwards.
"Security at Victoria Square was very efficient.
"The whole experience has put us off going out in Belfast, though, and that's a shame.
"It makes no sense that these security alerts and parades are being stepped up in the run-up to Christmas.
"It's so unfair that the people behind this are ruining everyone's holiday," Mr Armstrong added.
As Army bomb officers prepared to examine the vehicle its detonator activated, shortly after 11pm. Mercifully, the crude homemade device did not fully detonate, and the damage was restricted to a shattered windscreen and a door blown from the car.
The innocent driver was yesterday described as "extremely badly shaken".
"The man was clearly very upset, very scared, but felt he had no other option but to drive a primed bomb into the city centre," PSNI Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum said.
Sources in Ardoyne said the masked men had informed the man they knew of his identity and those of his relatives in the area. They were unarmed but the threat to his family members forced the driver to carry out their instructions.
The vehicle and the device were removed from the scene and will undergo forensic examination in the coming days.
Both Victoria Street and Chichester Street were closed overnight but reopened just before 8.30am yesterday.
Ardoyne priest Fr Gary Donegan said the victim would be "traumatised". The priest recalled how a relative of his own was forced to drive a bomb to a police station in the 1970s, and struggled to come to terms with the experience. The device was made safe but the ordeal haunted the innocent driver.
"It was devastating for the entire family and can have seriously detrimental effects on the individual's health," said Fr Donegan.