Belfast Telegraph

Leona O'Neill: A haunting scream I will never forget after shots rang out

A car burns in Creggan after petrol bombs were thrown at police
A car burns in Creggan after petrol bombs were thrown at police
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

I have been covering the news in Northern Ireland off and on now for over 20 years.

Journalists are used to contention and tension and dangerous situations, it can be part of the job. The frequency of meeting such situations can desensitise us, make us complacent, think of them as normal environments.

And that is why what happened on Thursday night to Lyra McKee has broken my heart and rocked me to my core.

I had arrived at the scene shortly after 9pm after being alerted to a massive security operation in the Mulroy Gardens area.

A house search was being conducted and officers were backed up by at least 10 police Land-Rovers and two ATO vehicles. A number of the Land-Rovers had situated themselves in the adjoining streets to provide support to their colleagues.

Crowds of youths began to gather at the junction of Fanad and Central Drives.

At around 9.15pm the first bottles began to rain down on police, followed by an array of petrol bombs thrown by masked youths. Then fireworks lit up the night sky, exploding on the roofs and bonnets of police vehicles.

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To cheers and whoops a hijacked work van was abandoned across the street and set alight, closely followed by what looked like a black Audi car.

Fanad Drive is a densely populated street within a nationalist housing estate.

Families had spilled out onto the street to catch a glimpse of what was going on. A row of teenagers had their phones out capturing the flames for Snapchat.

Young children were constantly being told not to go too far down the road in case they got hit with a brick.

Even though the streets were strewn with broken glass and were on fire, there was no sense of threat or danger.

So when 11pm came around and a lone masked gunman came out onto the pathway and fired shots indiscriminately up the street towards police vehicles - as well as the neighbours, friends and children from their own community who had gathered beside the Land-Rovers to watch the events - no one realised what was happening.

As the first 'pop' of gunshots rang out I took cover behind a wall, but very few other people did.

People asked: "Are they shots?" "No it's fireworks," some replied. "They're firing blanks," someone else said. "They are just trying to scare the police."

From my position behind the wall I could see a young woman lying at the back left-hand wheel of a police vehicle, unconscious.

Her friends, realising that she had fallen, began to scream "she's shot, she's been shot!"

Someone who loved her screamed at the top of her lungs, a haunting sound I will never forget.

There was chaos and disbelief and terror.

People gathered around to help. My friend took off his coat to put under Lyra's head.

There were desperate cries for help and someone to phone an ambulance.

I had my phone in my hand and called 999. I don't remember what I said to them.

They calmly asked me questions about the patient's condition and our location and I tried to answer them as best I could, while all around me were friends crying, people panicking, others saying she must have fallen and hit her head, she couldn't have been shot. She just couldn't have been.

People had blood on their clothes and on their hands.

Friends made to carry her the short distance to a car.

The image of her being lifted by the arms and legs, gravely injured, the faces of her friends contorted in anguish, reminded me of the famous picture from Bloody Sunday of the group carrying Jackie Duddy, with Bishop Daly forging ahead waving his white handkerchief.

Police officers hearing the commotion emerged from their vehicle, saw the grave condition the young woman was in and rushed her into the back of their vehicle.

The sirens went on, the blue lights lit up the night and the police raced, through burning barricades and rioters, to take the stricken journalist to hospital.

It was over in minutes.

Lives were utterly changed in a heartbeat.

Her friends stood embracing and crying and wondering what had just happened.

There were cross words from bystanders who screamed at rioters "look what you have done" through tears.

No one could believe that a young woman had been cut down in their streets.

Families went home, closed their doors and held their loved ones tighter.

At least five shots had rung out. Those of us who were standing near Lyra were afforded the chance to go home to our families and live our lives out, while those who loved this vibrant and much-loved young woman cried over her lifeless body in the hospital.

Lyra was a gifted writer, a passionate communicator, a campaigner, a fighter and one who was loved and cherished by all those who knew her.

A brilliant light has gone out and Derry, and indeed Northern Ireland, is a much darker place today without her.

Belfast Telegraph

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