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Omagh fire tragedy one year on

By Emily Moulton

It was a tragedy of immense proportions — an entire family perished in a fire just six weeks before Christmas.

At first it was thought this young, seemingly happy family of seven had simply been unable to escape the inferno which ripped through their Lammy Crescent home in Omagh a year ago today.

Witnesses recalled how they tried to in vain to save Arthur McElhill (39), his partner Lorraine McGovern and their five children Caroline (13), Sean (7), Bellina (4), Clodagh (19 months) and baby James, but were overcome by thick, acrid smoke and ferocious flames.

When fire crews were finally able to bring the blaze under control, all that remained of the Omagh home was a burnt shell.

The loss of life was heartbreaking.

In the immediate aftermath neighbours described how the 39-year-old father-of-five, who worked as a stockman for a local farmer, “lived for his family and was very funny”.

They also told of how his partner Lorraine, whom he had met when she was just 15 and he 26, was a “friendly, bubbly girl” who just wanted to “get married and have children”.

However, a sense of shock and bewilderment swept over the small, tight-knit community when details began to emerge of this horrific house fire.

Police investigating the blaze were not entirely satisfied that this was an accident and called in a fire expert who revealed that the house had been doused in petrol.

What was first thought to be an unimaginable tragedy was now mass murder. As police and fire officers began to delve further, the finger of blame quickly turned to Arthur McElhill.

While police never officially named the 39-year-old as the chief suspect, they never named anyone else.

To this day police still say they are not looking for anyone else in connection with Northern Ireland’s worst house fire.

Then sinister elements of McElhill’s past began to emerge.

The father-of-five was in fact a convicted sex offender. He had sexually assaulted two 17-year-old girls during the early 1990s. Both attacks had been carried out with extreme physical violence.

He received a two-year suspended sentence for the first attack in 1994 and was jailed for three years in 1996 after indecently assaulting another 17-year-old in Fermanagh.

After walking free in August 1998, he was put on the sex offenders' register.

Then less than a week after the fire it emerged that a 17-year-old girl had been staying with the family just weeks before the atrocity unfolded.

Social services had placed the vulnerable teenager in the couple’s care. However, police removed her after they learned McElhill was a convicted sex offender.

Following the revelation, calls were made that an inquiry should be held into how the Western Health and Social Services Trust could have allowed a 17-year-old girl to be placed in the care of a registered sex offender.

Seven months later that inquiry found significant failings within Social Services.

And while the report concluded that no-one could have predicted the horrendous events of November 13, 2007, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey ordered the trust to implement 63 recommendations including the sharing of information between agencies, something which was highlighted as a major flaw.

The Northern Ireland Social Care Council then launched an inquiry into social workers' involvement with the McElhills.

However, no staff, including those involved directly in the case or those charged with ensuring child protection procedures, have been formally referred to the watchdog. It is not expected to make public any findings until the end of this year.

Detectives working on the case have also just completed their investigation. However, their official findings are still yet to be released.

A PSNI spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph the investigation was at an advanced stage and that a file would be handed over to the Public Prosecution Service “shortly”. Once submitted it will then be referred to the Coroner for an inquest.

Day by day: How the tragedy unfolded

NovEMBER 13 Seven members of McElhill family die in a fire at their Lammy Crescent home.

NovEMBER 14 Police reveal traces of petrol are found inside the house.

NovEMBER 15 It emerges Arthur McElhill is the chief suspect and is exposed as a serial sex offender.

NovEMBER 17 Police announce that all seven members of the family died from smoke inhalation.

NovEMBER 18 It emerges that a girl had been removed from the McElhill house days before the blaze. The teenager had been allowed to stay there despite Arthur McElhill's sex convictions.

DecEMBER 1 The funerals of all seven members of the McElhill family take place in Omagh. Afterwards Arthur McElhill is buried separately in Co Fermanagh from his partner and their five children who are laid to rest in Co Cavan0.

DecEMBER 3 Police chiefs reveal brave Caroline McElhill made a desperate emergency call for help to the fire service. She is being nominated for a posthumous award.

JAnUARY 15 Independent review ordered into fire tragedy.

Lammy Crescent’s future

A decision over the future of the house where a family of seven perished following a horrific house fire in Omagh last year could be made following the one year anniversary of their deaths, the Belfast Telegraph has been told.

Meetings between Lammy Crescent community representatives and the McElhill family are understood to have taken place behind closed doors over the past few months in a bid to come up with a suitable solution.

For the past year the empty, blackened shell of the end terrace home has remained untouched causing concern from some members of the community that the building was starting to pose a safety risk.

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