Omagh bomb memories of carnage, pain and bloodied footprints
Irish News reporter Seamus McKinney recalls the 'most emotional and traumatic interview' of his journalistic career with the family of an Omagh victim within days of the bombing and how the blood stained footprints at the entrance to the town's hospital stick in his mind.
WEST Tyrone Ulster Unionist MP, Willie Thompson kept repeating “This is my town. This is my town. This is my town” as he choked on deep sobs in the grounds of Omagh hospital.
That interview is one of my sharpest memories of the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bombing; that and blood stained footprints at the entrance to the town’s hospital.
Twenty years on, memories are in the form of snapshots and recalled feelings. Walking into the hospital, I was struck by red footprints emerging from pools of blood, fading as they dried along the hall in the same way as footprints fade after walking through a puddle of water.
I arrived in Omagh within two hours of the bomb going off. It was already clear that this was either the worst loss of lives or one of the worst losses of lives of the Troubles.
As I walked along hospital corridors, I was able to look into rooms were the less serious injuries were being treated. Doctors, nurses and porters were so busy, there was no-one to tell you to go away.
The interview with Willie Thompson in the hospital grounds was as shocking as it was heart breaking. He started in that normal professional political way but within seconds completely lost it and started crying, only able to repeat again and again “This is my town. This is my town. This is my town.”
The following day, the chaos continued only this time it had moved to Omagh Leisure Centre. There you watched as victims’ families waited among journalists gathering from all over the world.
Every so often, a police woman would come through a door beside which was printed lists. She would speak quietly to a family who would follow her out of the reception area. We later learned these families were being taken to the make-shift morgue to identify the remains of their loved ones.
By Monday, journalists had got a handle on how to cover the massacre. In the Irish News, each reporter was assigned a family or families. I was sent to Eskra to talk to seventeen-year-old Jolene Marlow’s family, her parents, Joe and Bridie.
At the family bar and petrol station with photographer, Margaret McLaughlin, we parked opposite a group of men, one of whom crossed the road to talk to us. He told us politely there had been a lot of English reporters there and local people were getting annoyed; he said it would be better for us to go.
As I turned to drive off, he said “Where are you from anyway?” When I said The Irish News, he said “Oh that’s our paper; we were waiting on you.”
What followed was the most emotional and traumatic interview in almost 35 years as a journalist. I was shown upstairs to Jolene’s bedroom and asked to wait for Joe and Bridie. I sat on the corner of the bed that Jolene left two days before. As I looked around, it was the perfect teenage girl’s room.
Her hurl and football boots were neatly stored in one corner. Below a huge poster of country singer, Garth Brooks was her recently acquired provisional driving licence, in pride of place.
Joe and Bridie’s shock and utter raw pain was palpable as they somehow managed to talk to me. As they spoke through tears and gut-wrenching, hurting sobs in the room where their stunningly beautiful child, Jolene had spent her last hours and minutes at home, the emotion just overwhelmed all of us.
Later as we drove through Omagh, stopped at traffic lights, we watched as hearses criss-crossed the junction, taking broken bodies on their final journeys home.
Days later in Buncrana, I watched as the bodies of Shaun McLaughlin (12), James Barker (12) and little Oran Doherty (8) were carried to St Mary’s Church, Cockhill. Oran was a fanatical Celtic fan and his dad always promised to take him to Parkhead. In the end, he didn’t get to Celtic but Celtic came to him when Marc Rieper helped carry his coffin. Club chairman, Kevin Kelly and coach, Willie McStay walked behind in the cortege.
Later, like a Greek chorus, the low moan of the youngsters’ mothers, aunts and sisters was picked up by the PA system over the three waiting empty graves. The sound was frightening and hair-raising. At the time I wrote it was “the wail of the innocent.”
Firefighter Paddy Quinn: