Leona O'Neill: Mothers united by Buncrana tragedy

No one empathises more with Buncrana Pier tragedy mum Louise James than other mothers, who can't help but imagine being put in her position, writes Leona O'Neill

Louise James with daughter Rioghnach-Ann and son Evan
Leona O'Neill

LIKE many others, I was deeply upset by the horrific events that unfolded in Buncrana two weeks ago. Five members of the one family wiped out after enjoying an afternoon together. It could have been any of us.

I know I'm not the only parent who hugged their children a little longer, who told them how utterly loved and special they were, and who was thankful beyond words that I was able to tuck them up in bed that night and kiss their warm, chubby cheek goodnight and hear a muffled 'I love you' from under the covers as I closed the door.

I wasn't the only one who thought of that mother's hauntingly quiet house when I heard my children laugh or even bicker on the school run.

The next day women cried and hugged at the school gates. Mothers I met that day and the days after had haunted looks in their eyes. Ours was a city in mourning. Mothers bore the weight of that unthinkable tragedy. No one smiled.

For it's a thing us mothers do. When a mother suffers a loss, we put ourselves in their place, we shoulder some of their unimaginable, raw grief. We all felt the crushing heartache as if it were our own to hold. We suffer with them, we share their pain, for we are all one in the same.

The family, understandably have been engulfed in a pain none of us will hopefully ever understand. It is hard to think how a mother could recover from losing her entire family support unit. I can't comprehend how she could face never hearing her children laugh again, never holding them in her arms or hearing their voices.

I don't want to imagine how she feels losing her partner and soul mate in life, the one whose arms she undoubtedly fell into when life knocked her down. I don't want to imagine how she feels losing her mother – her guiding light, her rock and the person who was always there for her – and her sweet, bubbly Justin Bieber-mad teenage sister with the world at her feet and her entire life ahead of her.

I have been a reporter for many years, I have covered many awful atrocities, tragedies, murders, tragic accidents and horrific court cases. I've seen the very best and worst of humanity. Witnessing these things harden you as a person. You grow a thick skin. You learn to switch off your emotional response, detach yourself from situations in order to get the job done.

Otherwise, you'd most certainly go mad.

I'll not lie, covering this story has impacted immensely on me. I cried for the family lost, I cried for the mother left behind. I, like many others, put myself in that mother's place, I imagined the unimaginable and I was broken by it.

I am a mother first and a journalist second. My heart broke every time I spoke with a witness this awful tragedy, every time I heard new details, every time I had to compute the unimaginable and write the words that were so hard to find in the midst of all the sadness.

I'm not the only one. I saw hard nosed reporters weep openly with the witnesses, seasoned professionals say they needed to take time away from the constant bombardment of horror, grown men who had covered Troubles related murders struggle to hold it together. Others just stunned into silence. For we are all human.

As the sun came up the morning after the horrific incident, I heard so many people say that they had no words. It was the job of the journalists that day, shaking and stunned and as heartbroken as the public – for we too are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters – to find those words to try and make sense of what happened.

I had done several stories with Louise and little Evan over the years. Her boy suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – a rare disease that results in muscle degeneration and premature death.

She was such a positive person, and that boy had the brightest, most sparkly eyes I ever saw. The last time I saw mother and son together, both our boys led Derry City Football Team out onto the field in the Brandywell Football Stadium as mascots. It was a special night for the two football mad lads and I remember them both coming back up to the stands and into our arms full of joy, buzzing from the experience.

I'll always remember that little boy's smiling eyes. For he was loved beyond measure, as was his brother, Mark. Those two boys were the luckiest children in the world to have a mother who loved so fiercely and who filled their house with joy and laughter.

They were blessed indeed to have a hero father who loved them so much to go back into that sinking car and fight to get them out when he could have escaped with his life.

As Louise's family home quietens after the funerals and the last of the visitors leave, Louise will need our thoughts and prayers now more than ever. God bless her and her baby daughter as they negotiate the dark days ahead.


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