Belfast Telegraph

'Why did they lose their lives in such a way? It's inhuman'

Howard Thornton in 1987
Howard Thornton in 1987
Howard Thornton recently
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Ex-policeman Howard Thornton, then aged 31, was the first of two officers to arrive at the horrifying scene that night. He was duty inspector in Omagh and had just started his shift when he heard there had been an explosion. Thirty years on, Mr Thornton can still vividly recall the devastation caused by the deadly attack.

He said: "It was like driving into hell. Myself and a young constable went there. There was confusion in the early stages, and there was the potential for a secondary device.

"It was pitch black. There was no street lighting. It was the middle of the countryside. When I got out of the car what I noticed first of all was a lot of bandsmen helping out with the injured on the road.

"It really was like looking at hell because there were people dying, there were dead, there were injured - it was harrowing. I soon realised that it was a military bus and these were soldiers being tended to.

"I felt total despair. When you're in charge everyone looks to you to for guidance and that's what kicked in. I was making sure the hospitals were aware, that we opened up a temporary mortuary. I also had to try and seal the area off to prevent others from driving into this scene.

"I requested an Army helicopter but it was already engaged. We were trying to get the injured away for medical attention and to look after those deceased at the scene and we had to continue to search into daylight in case we'd missed anybody or in case there were potentially body parts in neighbouring fields.

"It was a very difficult scene to preserve but we had to do that for forensics.

"I will never forget the inhumanity of what I saw; it's just appalling when you see young bodies strewn across the roadway. These were all very young soldiers who'd been returning from their holidays.

"We were heartbroken for the families of all those victims. It's so difficult. Why did they lose their lives in such a way? It's inhuman.

"Throughout my career I had served in high terrorist areas and there were incidents but this one I remember so clearly because it was the middle of the night, it was darkness and I was trying to work by torchlight.

"That is why it really sticks out in my memory. We had no natural light to deal with the mass murder on the Ballygawley Road.

"The fact that you're not able to see the entire scene of the atrocity. The fact that you're working with artificial light -whether from vehicles shining down the road or using torchlight - that's what's so vivid about searching for people, bodies and the reality of what had taken place. That's what really sticks out in my mind. Striving to find out the extent of the massacre, and where people were.

"Those who carried out this attack and slipped into the darkness of the night intended to kill and injure more than they achieved because it was a bus full of soldiers. And whilst nobody has been brought to justice they will at some stage have to answer to their maker.

"I bear mental scars from what I experienced that night. But everybody worked together and pulled together to try and save lives. On that one night I saw the worst of humanity and the best."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph