|At 3:10pm on Saturday, 15 August 1998, the car bomb exploded at the centre of the
crowd. The car was literally blown to pieces; fragments were later found hundreds of feet
away. The entire front wall of SD Kells cloths shop was blasted into the building, and the
roof collapsed into the top floor. Several of the dead were in this shop. The roofs were
blown off surrounding buildings and facades were blown in. On the opposite side of the
road, the blast went through the shop fronts like a knife through paper. At the Pine
Emporium, a furniture shop, the blast was such that furniture could later be seen sticking
out the windows at the back of the building. The owner, Elizabeth Rush, died in her shop.
The powerful blast wave was so powerful that the bodies of several victims were never
found. Further from the epicentre, the blast tore limbs of many people. The intense heat
of the explosion caused severe burns. As well as the blast, shards of glass and metal
scythed through the crowd of civilians. Even those further from the blast were hit by
flying masonry or were deafened by the noise. A water main under the road was exposed by
the blast, and this began pouring gallons of water over the wreckage, washing bodies down
the hill. 21 people died instantly, but the bomb had not yet claimed all its victims.
Almost immediately, Northern Ireland's largest ever medical emergency operation swung into action. A fleet of ambulances carried the most critically injured to the Tyrone County hospital. Two passing buses, and a large number of cars, were volunteered to take the rest of the injured to hospital. The police used the chemists in the town to get essential medical supplies. The shop on the corner with Dublin Road, Nicholl and Shiels, which was a drapery, was used for blankets with which to cover the dead and injured. Those who stayed on the scene dug through the rubble for survivors with their bare hands. A Priest, himself clearly overcome with grief, picked his way through the rubble giving the last rites to victims. In all, over 220 people were injured.
The RUC made appeals on local radio stations for all medical staff to go to their local hospitals. Doctors and nurses across Northern Ireland, including many nurses who were in Ireland on holiday, answered the appeal. The work of the staff at Tyrone County Hospital in the face of sheer numbers was magnificent. There were simply not enough beds for everybody, and medical staff began ferrying people to other hospitals across the province by helicopter and ambulance. The hospitals involved included Musgrave Park Hospital (Belfast), Royal Victoria Hospital (Belfast), Belfast City Hospital, The Ulster Hospital (Dundonald), South Tyrone Hospital (Dungannon), Altnagelvin Hospital (Derry) and Erne Hospital (Enniskillen). Tragically, one of the ambulances rushing to Belfast was in collision with a car, killing the driver, Mr Gary White. His death will forever be associated with the Omagh bomb.
Aided by the army, fifty firemen fought for the next seven hours using their hands and, later, thermal imaging equipment to search for survivors buried under the rubble of the shops. Sadly, they uncovered more bodies. Across the country, people watched their televisions in horror. The death toll became apparent only slowly. At 5pm it was 'several' dead, at 7pm it was 12, then 21, then 28. A 29th man, Sean McGrath, died in hospital 3 weeks later. It emerged that another victim, Avril Monaghan, was heavily pregnant with twins. By some definitions, this brings the death toll to 31. 30 children will have to live without their mothers because of the bomb.
Omagh's leisure centre was taken over as the incident centre. Hundreds of relatives waited there for news of relatives. So many people were trying to get news that the phone system collapsed. In the end, hospital staff were communicating with other hospitals by mobile phones belonging to reporters. Only five bodies could be identified immediately. Many relatives had to wait for hours for news. One family only had their worst fears confirmed at midday on Sunday. Staff used flowers and chairs to make the makeshift mortuary as comfortable as possible.
On the 18th of August the 'Real' IRA admitted responsibility for the massacre but, unbelievably, blamed the security forces for the deaths. In a statement they said that they had given 3 clear, 40 minute warnings; that they had said the bomb was 300-400 yards from the courthouse and that they had specified a commercial target. They also said that the bomb had gone off at the intended location. They concluded by saying that the attack was "part of the ongoing war against the Brits. We offer apologies to the civilians". As the transcripts of the warnings show, many of these claims are simply not true. Secretary of State Mo Mowlam described the statement as "a pathetic excuse for mass murder". Shortly afterwards, the 'Real' IRA declared a ceasefire.
While this summary gives a factual overview of the event, perhaps the best way to understand what happened is to read what the victims themselves said. This was the genesis of the next section.
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