La Mon 40th anniversary
ON February 1978, a large incendiary bomb planted by the IRA, containing a napalm-like substance, exploded into a fireball killing 12 people and injuring 30 more. Bimpe Archer hears how, 40 years after one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, the effects of the blast are still being felt.
WHEN police officers began asking for hair and toothbrushes, 14-year-old Andrea Nelson realised she had to let go of that last desperate hope that her parents had suffered head injuries and were sheltering somewhere in a concussed state.
She and her sister Melanie had happily helped their mother Dorothy get ready for a rare night out, never dreaming when they said a casual goodbye that it would be for the last time.
At the invitation of friends, she and her husband Paul were attending a Friday night dinner dance for the Irish Collie Club, an evening of glamour far removed from their day-to-day family life at their Dundonald home.
"Mostly evenings would be at home. A big treat used to be when my aunt and uncle came on a Sunday night and we would make buns for them," Andrea said of the period just before the tragedy that would change everything.
"That was a big deal."
Monday night library visits, evening classes in local history or ceramics and running their children to and from Girl Guides were the usual evening activities for Dorothy and Paul Nelson.
The couple, both in their mid-thirties, lived a quiet, family focused life, with summers spent at a tumbledown holiday cottage between Cloughy and Portaferry, collecting driftwood to build fires on the shores of the Irish Sea.
"There was no electricity or running water, just a pipe in the garden, it was almost like camping," Andrea recalls.
"One day when we were young we had forgotten our dollies to sleep with and my mum just knitted us a little dolly each over dinner, six little squares of wool sewn together and stuffed with toilet roll."
Andrea and Melanie were almost Irish twins, born "one year, one month, a fortnight and a day" apart.
Already close, the fireball, which claimed so many lives that night in February 1978, forged an unbreakable bond between the two girls that were left behind.
An IRA unit planted the incendiary bomb attached to petrol-filled canisters on meat hooks outside the window of the Peacock Room in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel, at Gransha, Co Down.
An explosive expert said trials carried out to simulate the effect had produced a fireball more than 60 metres in diameter.
Witnesses recall watching people "actually burning alive" and people being brought out of the devastation without arms and legs.
Bodies were later found charred beyond recognition, huddled against a brick wall opposite the bomb position.
Some of the remains had shrunk in the intense heat, leading to early reports that the victims had included children.
The IRA later claimed the deaths had been an "accident", and that after planting the bomb members tried to send a early warning from the nearest public telephone only to find it had been vandalised.
It said delays lead to an "inadequate" warning of just nine minutes being given to police.
Among those who condemned the atrocity was Pope Paul, who said it had been an "inhuman deed".
Dorothy and Paul Nelson's host Daniel Magill was also killed in the blast. His wife, who suffered facial burns, described a sheet flame coming from the corner of the room as she ran to the kitchen door and out into the hotel grounds.
She did not realise until afterwards that her husband and friends had been trapped inside.
In the immediate aftermath, life took on a surreal aspect for the Nelson girls.
They were looked after by their paternal grandparents in Knocknagoney where the house had a revolving door of family and friends offering their condolences to the two bewildered schoolchildren.
"We didn't know what happened at a funeral," Andrea recalls.
"We had to ask somebody, `What happens at a funeral? What do we wear? Where do we stand? Would it take half an hour or three hours?'"
Afterwards, they went to stay briefly with an aunt in Chester, returning to live with their grandparents and going back to their school, Bloomfield Collegiate in nearby east Belfast.
It helped, Andrea says, being surrounded by people who knew them before the tragedy.
"There was a huge strength in that continuity."
Nevertheless, "I think my teenage years were mostly taken away... I felt very responsible for my sister, just feeling like the big sister and having to step up to the mark. You suddenly have to grow up."
Both sisters moved away after leaving school, first continuing their studies in England (Andrea in London and Melanie in Chester) and then forging successful careers.
Andrea has transitioned from nursing into academia, now holding a professorship at University of Leeds specialising in wound healing.
"I think Melanie and I still carry that scar of loss. It's a bit like a bit of your heart has been broken off and is never going to be fully replaced.
"We both have applied (ourselves) to education and got qualifications, taken opportunities that Mum and Dad didn't have. They didn't have the opportunity to go to university. We have tried to make sure we take every opportunity. We're aware that we want them to be proud of us."
There is still that gaping hole at all the key life events, weddings, child birth - "we feel the loss very, very acutely at those times".
The separation of both time and distance inform their perspective on Northern Ireland in 2018. Andrea sees it as a place where an absence of war has not translated to true peace.
"I think there's a difference between going back to overt violence which everyone is working really hard to avoid at all costs, and low level mistrust and suspicion and hatred, one community for another.
"It means there might be peace in one form, but there isn't peace, it's not a peaceful place to be."
And despite the success that the girls may be seen to have made of their lives, Andrea believes it has been in spite of the state rather than due to any real support from it for victims.
"I felt there was very minimal acknowledgement of the huge impact that losing your parents has had on you.
"We were absolutely saved by the fact there was a little fund set up by friends and neighbours and the school that helped us stay in education."
They received £4,000 from the government for their loss - £700 for every year of their parents life they missed them until the age of 21 (the lobbied to have it extended from 18 to allow for university education).
"Even simply measuring somebody's worth in that way gives you the sense that there wasn't a realistic view of the impact that has on somebody, losing the whole of your family, somebody's mother, father, brother, sister...
"At least have some ongoing dialogue about what was needed by the family. We really didn't get the sense of anyone wanting to hear about the experience longer term.
"For us one of the sad things is it was like losing our home, losing Northern Ireland because for us it felt too painful to be in Northern Ireland.
"I talk about `home' - where I go to at night - and `home, home'. I've lost my `home, home'. I had my enjoyment of living in Northern Ireland affected."
The sisters return this weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of the bombing with the re-dedication service for the La Mon stained-glass window and memorial seating at Lisburn Valley Island, necessitated by the amalgamation of Castlereagh council with Lisburn.
"It will be bittersweet. It will be sad to acknowledge the horrible thing but good to see everyone. We don't see them that often. We have promises of lots of cups of tea."
The victims of La Mon
Thomas Neeson (52), from Lisburn, Co Antrim. Married with three children, he died along with his mother-in-law Sarah Wilson Cooper
Sarah Wilson Cooper (62), from Alliance Crescent, north Belfast. She died along with her son-in-law Thomas Neeson
Sandra Morris (27), from Alliance Crescent, north Belfast. Married with two children, she died along with her sister-in-law Carol Mills. Her husband was seriously injured.
Carol Mills (26), from Alliance Crescent, north Belfast. She died along with her sister-in-law Sandra Morris. Her husband was injured.
Ian McCracken (25), from Bangor, Co Down. He died along with his wife Elizabeth. The couple had been married for 18 months.
Elizabeth McCracken (25), from Bangor, Co Down. She died along with her husband Ian.
Daniel Magill (37), from Dundonald, Co Down. His wife was injured in the attack and friends Dorothy and Paul Nelson were also killed.
Gordon Crothers (30), from Gilbourn Court, east Belfast. A married father-of-one, he died along with wife Joan.
Joan Crothers (26), from Gilbourn Court, east Belfast. Married with one child, she died along with husband Gordon.
Paul Nelson (37), from Dundonald, Co Down. A married father-of-two who died along with wife Dorothy.
Dorothy Nelson (34), from Dundonald, Co Down. A married mother-of-two who died along with husband, Paul.
Christine Lockhart (33), from Richhill, Co Armagh, Married
Who was behind La Mon?
Belfast man Robert Murphy received 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those, who died before being freed on licence in 1995.
In 2012, the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team completed a report revealed that important police documents, including interviews with IRA members, have been lost.
A number of the victims' families have called for a public inquiry, claiming the documents had been removed to protect IRA members - specifically double agents.