Northern Ireland news

Nurse who treated Omagh bombing injured recalls 'darkest' day of her life

Sister Joann McCullagh treated victims of the Omagh bombing at the Tyrone County Hospital in 1998. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association
Rebecca Black

A nurse working at the Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh the day of the bomb has recalled it as the "darkest" of her life.

Sister Joann McCullagh was then a staff nurse, and says she is proud to have been on duty that day, and also proud of how the people of Omagh pulled together and supported each other.

She had been relaxing at home on that Saturday afternoon following a week of night shifts when she heard about the bomb and immediately returned to the hospital.

When she arrived at A&E she was greeted with chaos.

"There were multiple people screaming and cars everywhere, buses coming, it was chaos," she said.

"There was no concept of time, it was just a mass of people coming through the doors, people asking for loved ones.

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"One of my memories was Mr Pinto [a surgeon] asking me to get a priest. I recall at the bottom of the stairs there were hundreds of people, roaring, shouting, crying, screaming for loved ones.

"I recall seeing a priest. I remember reaching over this mass of people dragging him up the stairs.

"When we got to the theatre door there was a red line, he stopped and said, 'you can't enter theatre', I remember going, 'I need you now', and pulling him into the theatre. He was obviously giving Last Rites to one of the unfortunate victims."

An injured casualty is airlifted from Tyrone County Hospital to the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital following the Omagh bombing. Picture by Peter Murphy, Press Association

One of Ms McCullagh's most poignant memories was transporting a seriously ill patient to Belfast.

"The patient had very traumatic leg injuries, I recall taking this lady via helicopter," she said.

"Her husband had got to the door of ward 12 just as we were about to get into the helicopter, he ran out to say cheerio to her.

"As I was getting into the aircraft, and the noise, every time I see a helicopter I remember that noise, I'd never been in a helicopter before and the army personnel were exceptionally good. They were supporting us in every way.

"I recall landing at Musgrave Park and the silence, the unbearable silence.

"We got into an ambulance and were taken to the Royal [Victoria Hospital] and there was just this deafening silence.

"When I got to the Royal, I was taken with the patient, her name was Geraldine, into the Resus area.

"I recall Geraldine holding my hand and squeezing it. I remember praying to her and saying 'Geraldine, you are going to be alright' then the whole team engulfed the area and then I was left aside."

Geraldine Breslin later died from her injuries. Years later, Ms McCullagh met members of her family and formed a lasting friendship.

Ms McCullagh said she is proud of how the town came together in that dark hour.

"It was the people of this town, our friends, family, our loved ones, neighbours, friends - everyone knew everyone because we are a small community," she said.

"We just worked and worked and worked. I went home. I think it was about 4.30am in the morning.

"It was the darkest day of my life but the nursing and clinical care given on that day was exceptional.

"I'm very proud to have been a nurse on that day as I am so proud of the people of this town.

"We had to deal with an unbelievable horrendous incident but as a town and a community we worked tirelessly together and that cannot be emphasised enough."

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