The Omagh Bombing
At 3:10pm a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier parked on a main shopping street explodes. It sends molten metal hundreds of feet. Shattered glass from shops scythes down the street. The semtex triggered 500 pound fertiliser explosive collapses walls as roofs are blown off buildings. The blast wave is so powerful that some bodies simply disintegrate. 21 die instantly. The effects on other human bodies are nearly indescribable.
"The injuries are horrific, from amputees, to severe head injuries to serious burns, and among them are women and children."
Paul McCormick, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service BBC News Online, August 1998
And the single worst terrorist atrocity of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ will claim more lives:
“And it was then that I looked down, and saw that my foot was not just there anymore.”
Suzanne Travis, survivor
OMAGH (Before the bomb)
Omagh is about an hour west of Belfast. It’s the sort of small town where during the week you naturally say hello to people passing on the street. But British troops still patrol what many believe are Irish streets. They came to protect the Catholic minority in 1972. Since then, many believe they protect only the Protestants and enforce British rule. Just the name of the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), is a source of bitter resentment. It first word, ‘Royal’, angers Irish republicans who don’t see themselves as subjects of the British Queen.
Omagh is a 60-40 Catholic-Protestant ratio and most of its troubles come from outsiders. Ireland itself seems on the brink of better times. Just 13 weeks previously, the Good Friday Agreement has been signed. Opposing sides that have warred for centuries, and especially bitterly in the last three decades, have signed up to a blueprint of how they will work peacefully together. Religious and political co-existence seems possible.
That Saturday, 15 August 1998, is busier than usual because parents from surrounding areas have come for the specialist school uniform shops as a new term approaches.
No one suspects anything when two men park a red car near to one of these clothes shops. The neatly dressed men in their 20s get out of the car and walk off. It’s 2:19pm.
At 2:30pm, a TV station receives a bomb threat:
"There’s a bomb, courthouse. Omagh, main street, 500 pounds, explosion 30 minutes"
The caller gives a code-word used in previous bombings. This isn’t a hoax. The police are informed. They have less than half an hour. The police operation begins and they start moving people away from the courthouse. For the shoppers, the police instructions aren’t a cause for panic. Bomb alerts are a routine part of life. Tragically, the police are moving them towards the blast area.
OMAGH (After the bomb)
A chemist is raided for supplies. The contents of a curtain shop are taken to cover the dead. Survivors dig with their bare hands through the rubble for anyone buried. A leisure centre becomes a casualty field centre and temporary morgue. Ambulances, and even buses and cars are used to ferry survivors to hospitals. An ambulance crashes into a car and kills its driver. The phone system collapses as relatives ring for news. News reporters give up their mobiles so medical services can keep up communications. The bomb blast deafens many so shouts mix with screams. A burst water main floods the bomb site. Blood and body parts float down the street. A bus full of bodies is about to leave when someone stops it to hand in a severed arm.
At the hospital, Suzanne Travis, who had been out shopping for fruit and veg with her mother, is told her wound is so ‘messy’, that doctors can’t stem the bleeding. She’s already lost her foot but they need to remove more. She needs to give them written permission before they operate,
“I had to sign that form then that night, to give them permission to take more of my leg away.”
Suzanne’s mother is also being operated on. She slips into a coma.
But the last to die will be businessman Sean McGrath. He’d come into town for a haircut. He dies from injuries sustained on the streets where he was born 61 years earlier. Twenty nine people die as a result of the attack and a further 220 are injured. Even the leader of the nationalist party Sinn Fein, Martin McGuiness, a former IRA commander, condemns the attack.
The bomb kills not only Protestants, but Catholics and just as pointlessly, a Mormon teenager. In total, five teenagers, six children, a pregnant woman and her unborn twins also die on Market Street, Omagh.