Why the ex-RUC man who survived three bomb attacks, lost his wife and daughter in a car crash and now runs a church says that forgiveness is the road to peace
David Williamson, originally from Coleraine, tells Leona O'Neill how his faith led him through his tragedy and heartbreak
An ex-RUC man who was blown up by the IRA three times during the Troubles says God has given him the strength and courage to forgive those who almost murdered him.
Coleraine-born father-of-four David Williamson has had his strong faith put to the test many times over his 57 years. He was almost killed in three separate IRA explosions, lost his wife and toddler daughter in a car accident, and saw several of his RUC colleagues murdered.
David - who is married to Sandy and leads a church in Dublin - says that through it all, God has given him not only the strength to recover but also the ability to forgive those who caused him so much heartache and pain.
"My story revolves around God and around forgiveness," he says. "God has been part of my whole life. I believe that God has a purpose and a calling for everyone's life. I believe his purpose for me was leading a small church. And the difficult road that I walked was part of the journey for me to get to a place where my character was developed and mature enough to do this job. God was my peace, He was my forgiveness."
David joined the RUC in his early 20s, his main motivation being "to help people". He says being a young officer stationed in Londonderry's Strand Road RUC Station during the 1980s, some of the worst years of the Troubles, was like "a baptism of fire".
"I grew up in a very non-sectarian family," he says. "I hadn't experienced the Troubles directly, living up on the north coast near Portrush. So, going to Derry when I joined the police was a huge baptism of fire for me, with many fires that were actually raging.
"I joined the RUC when I was 22 years old. I joined because I wanted to help people. That was in my heart. It was a hard job to do back then because of the environment. When you are in an armoured vehicle and you have to go out and carry a rifle and you have body armour on, it's hard to walk around smiling at people and do the job you would like to do.
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"It was around 1982 when I joined. Based in Derry, I saw everything from major riots to my vehicle being on fire inside and outside because of the intensity of the petrol bombs. I saw heavy riots where the town was looted by people. I saw people being shot, people being blown up and killed beside me. I saw the wide gamut of everything, unfortunately, that was going on at that time."
During his service in Derry, David was blown up three times. The last time left him with injuries so horrific, his family were told he wouldn't survive.
"The first time I was blown up was in the city's Castle Street," he says. "It was a big van bomb. We were trying to clear the area. And we were trying to do good, to save people's lives, to get them away from the pub and out of the dangerous area. And we were seen as the enemy, as if we were doing harm.
"I was just walking down the street after the evacuations when the bomb went off. It was about 40 metres away and I took the full force of the blast. It blew me up and smashed me into the wall. But I was fine. I wasn't injured. I hurt my back a little, but I was able to walk away. Some people were injured around me, but no one lost their life, which was good.
"I just carried on with my shift as normal.
"The second bomb happened in 1987 at Magee University. The IRA had shot 62-year-old Leslie Jarvis dead. The IRA planted a bomb at the site and two of my colleagues were killed in the blast. I was quite close to the car when the explosion went off. It threw me face down on the ground and I felt pieces of hot metal go past me from the blast.
"I got up and walked away from that one. But it was hard as two of my colleagues did not, tragically. Again, I was back in at work the next day.
"The third time happened at the bottom of Shipquay Street at Bank Place. There was an armour-piercing bomb dropped on the roof of our vehicle and I took the full force of the blast. I was hit with pieces of shrapnel from my eyes down to my knees.
"When a bomb goes off it disorientates everything. I had no idea what just happened. I thought the driver had just hit a car or something. I looked forward and out the window and I couldn't see out because of all the dust and the mess inside. And that is when I knew something had happened. After that is when I felt that pain and I knew that I had been really badly hurt. We got out of the Land Rover and shuffled around the corner to try and get out of the 'kill zone' in case there was any follow-up fire. I sat down and closed my eyes and tried to remain calm and tried not go into shock. The other guys were all around me. I held it together as best I could until the ambulance arrived and just let them do their job.
"My right elbow just completely disintegrated. My femoral artery in my leg was pierced. I should have been dead in five minutes. But the artery cauterised itself to a vein beside it with the white hot metal of the shrapnel. So the artery was bleeding out but it was coming straight back into my system. I just put that down to a work of God, because I should not be alive.
"My arm was completely destroyed. My arm was just held on by flesh. The elbow was completely shattered and gone. The hospital wanted to amputate and I just felt that God really gave me peace, that He would give me what the hospital said wasn't able to be given.
"When I was in the hospital waiting to go for a second opinion, they stuck pins all over the place to try to keep the bottom part of my arm attached to the top. I asked for a second opinion and they sent me to two more hospitals. In the third hospital they said they could save my arm but it would never work properly, I could never use my hand because the nerves had been blown away and it would never move.
"I asked the doctors to do what they could and I would do what I could.
"The pastor from my church came down and prayed with me. And that was one of the key parts in the turning around of my life. He prayed that there would be no bitterness in my heart.
"I asked God for help. And He spoke into my life. He directed me to Psalm Six from the Bible. It was as if God had written me a letter. It starts: 'Lord, why is my soul in anguish and my bones are in agony?' And it was just so relevant and He gave me the faith to hold on to and the belief to push through.
"My arm works fine now. I drive a motorbike, I surf, I don't know if there is anything I can't do. And I don't think I'd have recovered if I'd had bitterness and resentment in my heart. That is the miracle of God."
Tragedy struck for David again several years later when his wife Donna and toddler daughter Laura were killed in a road crash. David survived, as did his elder daughter Bekki, although both suffered horrific injuries.
"Everyone goes through their difficulties," he says. "At the end of the day, it all comes down to where our heart is in the middle of it all, and what we have to hold on to when everything goes wrong.
"I was in a car accident in Ballymoney. My wife Donna and my two-year-old daughter Laura were killed and my other daughter Bekki was paralysed on the left side.
"I was in a coma for 10 days. Medics said I was not going to survive and if I did I would be in a vegetative state. My heart stopped a few times. I had cracked ribs, my sternum cracked, my eye socket was smashed. I was told I would never be able to walk.
"Bekki couldn't walk, she was paralysed. I prayed so hard for her, that God would heal her, that He would heal us both. Five weeks after the accident we were out for a walk together. My daughter is okay. She is married and has three children now. She has had a full and wonderful life."
Several bones in David's body had been shattered, and indeed his heart was, too - but his faith in God has ensured that his spirit has never been broken. He says God blessed him with a second chance at life and love when several years after Donna died, he met and fell in love with his now wife Sandy.
"The reality is that I really struggled with the loss of my wife and child," he says. "The emotion you go through with a loss like that is huge. I had my hard days and my bad days. I had my feel-sorry-for-myself days. But God was patient with me and drew me back to Him. God gave me the strength to get through that time, He walked me through that pain.
"I said that I would never get married again," he says. "Because I never wanted to go through anything like that again. But I got an opportunity to go to South Africa when I was coming out of that time and it was there that I met this beautiful woman called Sandy. God just really pushed me and impressed upon me that this was the woman I was going to marry. We met in April, we married in December and we've been married for 24 years and we have four kids.
"She is such an amazing woman and I think that having someone who you share your life with in the way she has shared her life with me is one of the greatest gifts and blessings God has given me."
David says that he has been able to forgive those who caused him so much heartache. He says he hopes that Northern Ireland can also practice forgiveness.
"I absolutely forgive them," he says. "The first two bomb attacks did not have a huge impact on me, but the third time it happened directly to me, my body and my career were affected by it and I'm lying there with my arm, unsure whether I'm going to be able to keep it. When all those things were in my mind, that's the place God challenged me with the reality of forgiveness.
"I discovered that the reality of what happened doesn't go away and the memory doesn't go away, but the power of what happened to bring your life down - that is what forgiveness breaks.
"And that is what I would love to see for our nation, that people can forgive. For some people to forgive themselves for what they have done, and to forgive what has been done to them. I truly think that forgiveness is the road to peace."