Belfast Telegraph

Omagh bombing 20th anniversary: Firefighter says horrific scene will live with him forever

By Donna Deeney

A firefighter who was one of the first on the scene after the Omagh bombing has described how he remains haunted by the scene of devastation.

Paddy McGowan had worked for 25 years as a volunteer fireman in the Co Tyrone town, and had to draw on all that experience when a Real IRA bomb exploded on Market Street on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Mr McGowan said the sight that met him that day will stay with him for ever. He added: "I was actually passing the old fire station in Mountjoy Street when the bomb went off and it actually lifted my car off the road.

"People were coming to me saying 'Paddy, Paddy, what are we going to do?' because everyone was in a terrible state.

"I suppose the 25 years I had worked as a fireman came to the fore and I did what needed to be done. As well as working as a fireman I was also the district manager of Translink so almost the very first thing I did was to get one of my buses so that we could get the people to hospital.

"There were bodies everywhere, people were lying on the streets covered in blood and we were surrounded by walking wounded.

"People who never saw blood in their lives before were using duvet covers that had been blown out from a shop to cover the dead and the wounded." For Mr McGowan, nothing before or since compared to what he saw on August 15 1998.

"In my years as a fireman I saw some horrendous sights and dealt with some atrocious call outs but nothing compared to Omagh," he added.

"When I think back to those days and the things we had to deal with - like gathering up people who were blown to bits and put them into body bags - there's no other Fire Service that had to deal with that.

"I was in the Fire Service from 1976 until 1991 and I thought I had seen the worst of it but I hadn't because Omagh was the worst.

"Most of the people caught up in the Omagh bomb I knew, both those who lost their lives and the injured, but in the moment when I was at the scene doing what had to be done I couldn't have told you the names of a single person. I had to be professional and there was an urgency to do what was necessary, so I didn't pay attention to who I was helping. The only thing that mattered was helping the people and get them to hospital."

After the initial trauma passed and as the days and weeks and months passed, Mr McGowan had time to reflect on those whom he had helped - something he still does 20 years later.

He added: "Every day I see people who were there including people who were badly injured and lost limbs.

"Being at the heart of a terrible event like Omagh creates a bond that has lasted right though these 20 years.

"We meet on the street and even though we don't always speak about the bomb there is a silent connection.

"There's not a time I don't drive around the corner that I don't think about the bomb and all those who perished.

"Twenty years is a long time and there has been a healing but memories are never forgotten, nor should they be.

"It is important to have memorials - certainly the 20th anniversary. We must remember how terrible it was and make sure we never go back there."

Belfast Telegraph

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