Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: My memories of Shankill bomb are of a sunny day, but for those left behind has it shone since?

Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Whenever someone mentions the Shankill bomb, my first thought is of sunshine. Incongruous, I know, but that Saturday was one of those late October days gifted with warm, bright weather, a clear blue sky. The sort of autumn day that seems to have been stolen from summer. Unreal, really.

You can see it now in the photographs taken shortly after the explosion — the hazy light above the gaping maw where Frizzell’s fish shop had been minutes before, its beam illuminated with smoke and dust rising from the rubble.

Of course, you might not ever want to look at those pictures ever again. Though you can never forget and you would never want to forget, you might loathe the annual recycling of those images in the papers and on TV. Because you live with the aftermath every single day. A friend who lost her parents that day says that she always turns away from that scene of devastation.

But in those photos the sun is shining, as it shone all that afternoon.

It bounced back off the yellow helmets of the firemen as they frantically searched for survivors. It caught the lights of the emergency vehicles as they wailed their way up the road, screaming to a halt before taking off again with that sad cry.

It made the sweat course even harder down the backs of the men in T-shirts, volunteers digging for hours through the rubble with bare, bleeding hands.

It shone when someone yelled for the rescuers to halt, then an ambulance was reversed in as close as it could get; a short time later a stretcher, with its pitifully small cargo covered completely with a blanket, was loaded into its interior.

There was a silence so complete at the moment... and the sun shone on.

It shone on hope. It shone on despair. It shone on those still living. It shone on the dead. It shone in the middle of the afternoon when medics advanced through the watching crowds shouting for anyone who could do so to head immediately to hospital — I think it was the nearby Mater — to donate blood as supplies were running perilously low.

A quarter of a century later, I’m still bothered by the fact that I, like the other reporters there, stayed to do my job, which wasn’t a matter of life and death.

It shone on those about to be bereaved, who came running up the road and scrambling out of cars, frantic and wild-eyed. This was before everyone had a mobile phone. You couldn’t call, or send a text, or post yourself “safe” on social media.

Loved ones had to physically search for you. They had to not find you standing bewildered and miraculously plucked from the blast. To hunt on with rising panic and ebbing spirit. It shone on the tickertape cordon which was eventually pulled across the road. It’s odd the details that you remember, but for a while there was a distracted, upset old lady who kept coming over to talk to reporters behind the cordon and the sun shone on her, too.

We all thought she was — how should I put this? — a little touched.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered if it was actually us who had been beset by a collective madness, watching with what we could muster of a professional distance, while she was simply distraught with grief, traumatised. We were kind to her, which I suppose is something. Eventually, we decanted her into the care of locals.

Twenty-five years have passed and the memory of that day is still so clear. Now, it’s hard to fathom you are old enough to remember events such a great chunk of time ago. Like the way you’d once have listened to your parents recalling the moon landing, Churchill’s funeral or the assassination of JFK, quietly marvelling at how they could seem as old as Methuselah, except — you thought then in the vanity of youth — not quite as wise.

On October 23, 1993, I was a rookie reporter on this newspaper, not long out of university. In a short space of time, however, I’d already covered too many murders, become familiar with that dreaded walk up to the door of a grieving relative. A news shift on a Saturday began at 7am. Our deadlines were around 11am. The working day generally wrapped up about 1pm.

The sun was shining and I was packing up and planning to meet a friend for lunch when a dull thump reverberated around the newsroom. Bomb. Not far away. There was always that moment immediately afterwards when no one spoke, when we’d all look around at each other, absorbing the fact we were okay, and then the phone calls began.

That same friend drove me up the Shankill. We would be “replating”, which meant a new front page for a final edition. I’d about 20 minutes to file copy. Amid the carnage and mayhem, it was hard to extrapolate hard facts beyond that it was multiple fatalities.

Given the scale of the IRA atrocity, the front page of our Saturday evening sports paper, the Ireland’s Saturday Night, would be given over to the news.

I stayed at the scene all afternoon, filing copy. As Saturday gave way to Sunday, so the story only became more heart-rending. The cold numerical statistic of the death toll giving way to names, then faces, then the details of these ordinary, happy lives obliterated.

Shop owner John Frizzell and his daughter Sharon McBride; 13-year-old Leanne Murray; Michael Morrison, Evelyn Baird and their seven-year-old daughter Michelle; George and Gillian Williamson; Wilma McKee.

All gone because someone wanted to kill Protestants.

A bomber, Thomas Begley, also died.

That was the beginning of a week of bloodshed. Three days later, early one morning, I watched blankets being pulled over two council workers shot dead in Kennedy Way. Gone because somebody wanted to kill Catholics.

On the Friday, Rory and Gerard Cairns, two Catholic brothers, were shot dead at their home in Bleary, Co Armagh.

The following Saturday night, eight people were shot dead in the Greysteel massacre — six Catholics and two Protestants.

Wrong place. Wrong time. Wrong religion. If the Troubles proved anything it is the arbitrary and hideously unfair nature of death.

What is it someone once said about the past being a foreign country, one where they do things differently? I hope that’s true. I really do.

Recalling that Saturday afternoon on the Shankill Road even as a reporter — a bystander, an onlooker, if you will — isn’t easy. How much more worse, then, for those whose loved ones died, or were injured?

Yet over the last few days, I couldn’t help but think about it all again. It wasn’t just the talk in work about the 25th anniversary. Last week, we also had another one of those unseasonably mild autumn days. I left the office, walked for a while, then sat down on a bench and scrolled through Facebook. As she does most days, my friend whose parents died that day shared some photos of her wonderful menagerie of animals.

Some time after she lost her mum and dad, I interviewed her at home. We sat in her kitchen, watched closely by upwards of 14 cats. Pets don’t hurt you, they just love you, empathise with you, comfort you. I understood why she needed to be surrounded by them.

Today, there is a different house, far away from the city. There are still plenty of cats. Dogs and donkeys, too.

And there is a woman who cannot bear to look at a photograph of a bombing 25 years ago because it’s as real now as it was then.

And I sat in the October sunshine and thought about all of this.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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