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15 June 2009

The Omagh bombing: I never realised how beautiful my son's eyes were until I saw his broken little body

Last week, the families of the Omagh bomb victims won an historic court case against four Real IRA terrorists. Their 11-year campaign was backed by the Daily Mail and funded in large part by our generous readers. In the second extract from a new book charting the families' fight for justice, we reveal the grief they suffered as they discovered their loved ones had died - a grief that endures to this day.

Donna Marie Barker was out with her teenage daughter Estella when she heard on the car radio that a bomb had exploded in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh 40 miles away.

'Some people are going to get some very sad news today,' she said.

Her husband Victor had heard the newsflash, too, as he lunched at his golf club on that sunny Saturday in August 1998.

Neither was worried about their family. Their 12-year-old son, James, had gone on a coach trip to a theme park, but he was miles away from Omagh, or so they thought.

They had no idea that the group had taken a last-minute detour into Omagh to go to the shops.

They did not see the TV pictures of James's bloodied face as he was stretchered into hospital.

That evening, they went out to dinner with friends at a restaurant near their home while Donna Marie's mother went to collect James from the coach.

It was just about the time when James's body arrived at the mortuary that Donna Marie looked up from her soup to see her mother walking into the restaurant.

'She told us there had been a terrible accident and that James hadn't come home,' she said.

Innocent victim: James Barker
Innocent victim: James Barker died in the bombing

They were about to contact the theme park when the local priest phoned to say they should go to Omagh

All the phone lines to the town were down, so when they drove there they were directed by police to the town's leisure centre, hurriedly transformed into a makeshift headquarters for victims and support agencies.

It was eight hours since the bomb planted by Real IRA terrorists had exploded in a busy shopping street, killing and maiming 29 men, women and children.

Hundreds of people were milling around in the town centre waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones.

Many victims were there, too, still covered in dust and debris.

There was blood on the floor, crying, screaming and - in the words of one of those waiting - an atmosphere of 'terror and fear'.

A drunken father was blaming 'the effing Brit occupation of Ireland' for the bomb rather than the perpetrators.

The irony for the Barkers as they sat waiting for news through the night was that though Donna Marie was Irish, Victor, a solicitor, was English and so was their missing son.

It was not until 6am the next morning that they were taken by bus to a temporary mortuary in an Army barracks, its walls draped in black.

It was then they realised James was dead.

There were seven other families waiting to identify children and it was an hour or so before they saw their son's body.

'To see him lying there with half of his head gone and those beautiful green eyes looking out at me, as if he was waiting for me, was devastating,' said Donna Marie.

'I never realised how green his eyes were.

'That image will stay with me for the rest of my life. They have taken away my baby, they have robbed him of his future and for what? I will never forgive the evil men who carried out this deed.'

Another father trying to trace a missing son was Michael Gallagher. He had heard the explosion and seen the pall of smoke rising over the centre of the town.

After early reports that at least ten people were dead, he set out to look for his 21-year-old son Aidan, who had gone into Omagh to buy a pair of jeans.

Remembrance
Remembrance: Stanley McCombe, left, whose wife was killed in the blast
with James' parents Donna-Marie Barker and her husband Victor

Against the background of helicopters and ambulance sirens, he went straight to Tyrone County Hospital, soon abandoning his car alongside all the others blocking the approach roads as hordes of frantic, frightened people tried to get there, too.

The hospital was like 'a killing field', in the words of one anxious relative.

'There was blood everywhere - on the floor, on people's faces and bodies,' another recalled.

'You felt you were walking through blood.' A corpse lay on a stretcher as a priest administered the Last Rites.

In a state of blind panic, Michael tried and failed to get into any of the eight reception areas and then began searching the wards.

Some victims were so bloodstained that their faces and clothes could not be identified, so he looked for people of Aidan's height and then at their shoes.

Eventually, dazed by the terrible scenes but relieved his son wasn't there, he went home.

Later, he went to the car park where Aidan would have left his car. The white Toyota was one of just two vehicles left in the car park.

He knew then his son would not be coming home.

At 5.30am on Sunday, he was told officially that Aidan was dead. He could not bring himself to identify the body, afraid that the image would haunt him for ever.

Kenneth Hawkes did stare into the dead face of his fiance Esther Gibson, 36.

Beads of polystyrene - or perhaps fertiliser particles from the explosive in the home-made bomb - were embedded in the dried blood on her skin.

'I cannot bear to think about the people who did this,' he said later. 'My lovely Esther was the best thing that ever happened to me and now this. This is the worst.'

It was the worst for many people that day. Quantity surveyor Mark Breslin had been at home gardening when he heard the explosion in the town centre just after 3pm that Saturday.

He rang the shop where his wife, Geraldine, 43, worked and was told that everyone had been evacuated beforehand, but not everyone had returned.

Before
Before: Seconds before the bomb in the red car went off this man and child posed for a picture

After
After: Rescue workers and police search through the devastation for survivors following blast

He rang her parents' home, then his own parents.

His father drove him as close to the hospital as he could get through the traffic jam and Mark ran the rest of the way.

He gave Geraldine's name to the hospital staff and searched all the wards for her, until he finally discovered that she was in intensive care.

He was allowed a brief visit. She was semi-conscious, her head and an eye were bandaged and her face had burn marks, but she managed to mutter: 'I'm sorry.'

Her leg had to be amputated, but what was worrying the doctors was internal damage and it was decided to transfer her by helicopter to a hospital in Belfast.

When he got there three hours later, she had died. He sat with her body for half an hour, just holding her hand, before he went home to tell her 14-year-old son Gareth, his stepson, that his mother was dead.

Geraldine's best friend and fellow shop worker, Ann McCombe, 48, was also dead, though her husband Stanley and 22-year-old son Clive did not know.

Members of a pipe band, they were in Glasgow for the world piping championship with several others from Omagh.

When they heard about the bomb, they thought it had gone off well away from where Ann worked and that she must be safe.

But as the hours ticked by and he could not get through on the phone, Stanley got word that one of her colleagues, Veda Short, 56, had been killed.

Now he was frightened. Stanley, a gregarious man with a wide circle of friends in Omagh, flicked through the channels on his radio and heard the death toll rising and rising.

It was a certainty he would know many of the victims.

The news got worse. He was mistakenly told his sister Rosemary, a traffic warden, was dead. 'I just went to pieces.'

Though badly injured, Rosemary was in hospital. Stanley's younger son, Colin, was safe, too. But Ann, his wife of 25 years, was missing.

Victory
Victory: Michael Gallagher, centre, and Victor Barker, centre, right with glasses, and other relatives of the Omagh bomb victims after winning their landmark case

The ferry and coach journey home from Scotland was nothing short of torture. They got back to Omagh at 10am on Sunday, and 'you could feel death in the air', Stanley recalled.

No one was about. Even the dogs weren't barking.

After another sleepless night, he was told that Ann's body had been identified by the minister at their church.

Her injuries were so terrible that on the Tuesday Stanley was allowed to see only her badly burned face.

A metal bolt was sticking out of her head. 'That image will stay with me until the day I die,' he said.

The whole community was numb with shock. The relatives of the 29 dead and more than 200 injured were in the middle of a nightmare created by merciless bombers intent on halting Northern Ireland's progress to peace and power sharing.

Teenager Lorraine Wilson's big brother Garry raced into town to look for her when he heard the bomb go off.

He did not realise that a body he saw lying across the road, which someone had covered with a coat, was his 15-year-old sister.

The rest of the family joined him as they searched the hospital wards for her. It was the next day before she was identified in the mortuary.

Looking at her lying there, her father, Godfrey, found himself checking her teeth and her straight, fair hair, of which she had been so proud.

Her teeth were intact but her hair was dirty and dishevelled. Then he saw what he thought was a teardrop under one eye, which he gently removed, put in a matchbox and took home.

Single mother Marion Radford had been caught in the blast. After pulling out a shard of glass embedded in her head and another from the back of her neck, she looked round for her 16-year-old son, Alan, with whom she had been out shopping.

His body was just yards away from her in the bomb crater, but she did not see it. She was taken to hospital, protesting that she had to find her son.

Her other son, Paul, arrived with a friend to look for his brother, but it was not until the next day that they located Alan in the mortuary.

Kevin Skelton had been shopping with his wife, Philomena. She had been in a draper's shop and he was in a gift shop next door when the bomb went off.

He rushed to the draper's and saw her lifeless body on the ground.

Two of his daughters, who had been with their mother, were missing. One soon turned up but, though he searched frantically, he did not find the other girl, Shona, for two hours.

A man told him she had been taken to hospital and he found Shona there, her face badly damaged, but alive.

It turned out her mother had taken the full force of the blast and so had saved her.

'I will never forget those hours running about, not knowing whether people were dead or alive, and smelling burning flesh,' said Mr Skelton.

The next day he had to break the news to Shona that her mother was dead. The losses suffered that day have never been forgotten, the trauma and the grief never erased.

Last year, as the relatives of the victims brought their civil action against the Real IRA to court, they went into the witness box to spell out the heartbreak of their lives since that summer Saturday in August 1998 when their worlds fell apart.

Mark Breslin was first, recalling his lively, attractive, fashion-conscious wife on a stretcher, her face covered in bandages, whispering her last words to him as he leaned over her.

After her death, he was a changed man, his mental state and work record erratic. 'I would like to think I have got more stable,' he said.

Real IRA member Liam Campbell
Real IRA member Liam Campbell, was one of four men found to be responsible for the Omagh attack at the High Court in Dublin

Stanley McCombe, once a happy-go-lucky friend to all, broke down as he told how, after losing his wife Ann, he was filled with anger.

It was hard not to share the tears of Denise Kerrigan, whose 15-year-old sister Lorraine Wilson had been killed, as she described the destruction of a happy family, with a father who had changed from being family-oriented and fun-loving into being angry, bitter, argumentative and loud.

Godfrey Wilson talked of the good times, of getting married 'to have a happy, healthy family. I thought that was what life was about'.

The murder of Lorraine had destroyed the family, finished him at work and left him and two of his children suicidal.

He described unflinchingly how one son, Colin, woke him up one night and called him to the garage, where his other son, Garry, had put a rope around the beam.

After being stopped from hanging himself, he had run into the river. Godfrey's wife Ann could not face giving evidence, but in a written statement told how Colin had become paranoid, traumatised and fearful.

And then there were the Gallaghers. Cathy gave evidence about how her brother Aidan's death had stunted her career and caused her to take a drug overdose.

Her father, Michael, spoke of the horrors of that day in Omagh and how he had not been able to work since then.

His wife, Patsy, described how he had become bad-tempered, demanding, aggressive and obsessive - 'not a father any more or a husband any more'.

This was the mark that the terrible events of Omagh, perpetrated by the Real IRA, had left on the survivors.

But what had made it even more unendurable was that, for so long, it seemed that no one would be brought to justice for this heinous crime - until, as we will see tomorrow, some of the victims decided it was time for them to take action.

This is an abridged extract from Aftermath by Ruth Dudley Edwards, to be published by Harvill Secker on July 2 at £12.99. © 2009 Ruth Dudley Edwards. To order this book P&P free, tel: 0845 155 0720.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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