Northern Ireland

Omagh Bomb: 'Like a scene out of a horror movie'

Omagh bomb scene Image copyright PA
Image caption Twenty-nine people, including a woman pregnant with twins, were killed in the 1998 attack

When you ask people about Omagh, what is their first thought?

For most people it is 15 August, 1998, when a car bomb killed 29 people - including a woman pregnant with twins- in the centre of the town. For me, Omagh is home.

That Saturday started like any other Saturday, but 20 years on, it's a day I'll never forget.

I was working in Supervalu and was on a bit of a high because I'd passed my driving test the day before.

At lunchtime, I walked down town to meet a friend who was getting her hair done in a hairdressers in Campsie.

I rarely headed down that end of town, but I did that day.

I must have walked past the car containing the bomb, already parked, waiting for what was to happen next.

So many times I've wracked my brain trying to remember if I'd seen anything that could help piece together who did this to my home town.

But I couldn't.

Crowds of people

I went back to work after lunch, serving on the hot food and ice cream counter.

I remember the Spanish and Buncrana children coming in and serving them, what they had I can't remember - maybe it was ice-cream.

Image caption Aileen Moynagh was 17 and working in the town on the day of the bomb

I remember looking out the front door and seeing crowds of people walking down Market Street towards the bottom of the town and heard there was a bomb scare at the court house.

Not long after, we were told the shop was being evacuated.

I, and many others, headed towards the front doors but the provisions manager closed them and said no - protocol was to go out the back.

If only other shops had adopted the same measures.

There was a woman, with a child and a trolley of groceries waiting for the lift. A friend and I said we'd help her down the stairs.

We put her groceries in the car and headed back towards the back door.

We'd just reached it when there was a bang.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption RUC and forensic officers sift through the debris of the Omagh explosion

The strange thing is, the bang didn't seem that loud to me.

What I remember were the birds and the slates of the building blowing off the roofs.

And then the silence.

The silence that seemed to last for ages, but it was realistically only a few seconds.

'Screaming'

Then everything changed.

There's an entry that runs from Market Street, where the bomb went off, to the car park I was in.

That's where people started running towards us.

Girls I knew, saying that their friends had been injured. Some of the injured came, covered in blood, looking for help.

Another girl screaming that her mother was dead.

'The devastation'

It was like a scene out of a horror movie. But unfortunately, one in which I was part of and it wasn't fiction, it was very real.

A few of us walked towards the Dublin Road.

I stopped and looked across at the site in front of me. The devastation. The front of Slevin's Chemist destroyed, the pandemonium on the street yards ahead of me.

I was frozen. I couldn't go any further. I was terrified and couldn't face what lay ahead, so I turned back.

I've often regretted not going to try and help. I may have been more of a hindrance than anything - the sight of blood doesn't sit well with me.

But maybe I could have held someone's hand, comforted someone or helped friends caught up in it.

But I ran away.

'I was so frightened'

I met a policeman I knew and he said he'd get me home.

I knew my parents would be panicking. I'd already tried to ring home, but the phone lines were down.

I say ring home, but we were queued at the pay phone into the shop - there were no mobiles back then.

We made our way through the store room on to the main street above the bomb site and made our way to the bus depot.

People were saying there were rumours of a second bomb. There wasn't, but at the time I was so frightened.

When we got to the bus depot I met my friend's mum.

Omagh bomb timeline

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She had headed into town looking for her but said she'd leave me home first.

We didn't know at that stage my friend - her daughter - was among the injured.

My parents' house is between the old Tyrone County Hospital and the leisure centre - two places which became a hub for different reasons over the following days.

I got home to an emotional and relieved family.

I was never so glad to see them and be safe. My dad had been leaving the house when the bomb went off. Mum thought it was our car, because it was so loud.

Dad headed straight into town to find me.

'Walk away, towards the bomb'

When he got to the Swinging Bars Roundabout he met someone he knew who told him to stop, that he didn't want to see how bad things were.

I can't even imagine what my parents were going through, although it's nothing compared to the pain other families have had to endure.

We were some of the lucky ones.

While I was home and safe, my thoughts were with my friends.

Friends who had been in the shop and told me that, apparently, there was a bomb scare at the courthouse, that they were being moved down the street.

I had watched them walk away, towards the bomb.

Our house phone wasn't working as so many phone lines were down so I wanted to go to my friend's house.

The friend I worked with and helped the woman to the car with.

Even though I'd passed my driving test the day before, I was in no fit state to drive, so my sister left me.

We sat watching it unfold on the television, watching the numbers of dead and injured increase, waiting for news.

Minutes seemed like hours as I sat with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, dreading the phone ringing with bad news.

Two of my circle of friends were injured.

Hive of activity

The following few days were strange, spending time with friends in hospital - not how any of us imagined the last few weeks of our holidays.

While in the hospital one day, there was a hive of activity as special guests were arriving.

We sat at a window seat waiting and watching as a row of cars gleaming in the August sunshine lined up at the front of the hospital.

Later, Prince Charles and Mo Mowlam appeared on the ward.

It's funny the things you remember. We were sitting eating Quality Street and shared them around.

Mo Mowlam took a green triangle (or as I just checked, a hazelnut noisette) and she handed me the wrapper saying "in honour of your hard work and dedication".

Not that she knew me of course.

The next day I attended the funeral of Jolene Marlow. Jolene was a friend of one of my closest friends and her mum and my dad are cousins.

It was one of the saddest funerals I've ever been to.

At the end they played Jolene's favourite song - LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live".

Months later my school was asked to record an album in tribute to her.

At the age of 14 Jolene had written about two things she wanted to do: "One is become a marine biologist and the other is swim with dolphins…that would be paradise".

The album was entitled "To Swim With Dolphins" and included a tribute song to her, which I composed.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Structural engineers begin to examine the scene in and around the Explosion

Going back to school in September, just weeks after the bomb, was strange.

It wasn't like any other year.

I can't really explain how it felt but it was different. There was an air of sadness, confusion, anger.

There were pupils returning after injury, some returning after losing relatives, friends or neighbours.

Nobody was unaffected by what had happened. We were all still kids trying to make sense of it all.

Symbols of peace

A group of us decided we wanted to do something, to give pupils a chance to express their feelings and to reach out to others.

So we created seven doves - a symbol of innocence and peace - one for each year group.

Every pupil in the school wrote their thoughts on a piece of paper which was folded into a ribbon so it couldn't be read. Each was pinned to a dove like feathers.

We gave a dove to each school in Omagh who had lost a pupil in the bomb and then a few of us brought doves to the primary school in Buncrana in memory of the three young boys who'd lost their lives.

Omagh didn't just affect those who lived there - the pain and hurt caused extended much further and still exists to this day.

As a reporter, I have to report on stories where people have lost their lives or been injured and I often think back to Omagh.

My memories of what happened on that day in August 20 years ago always remind me that events like this are not just news stories, but people's lives.

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