Others were out buying groceries, getting a haircut or meeting friends. The summer was at its pinnacle and the sun was shining. Photographs taken around midday show carefree people smiling for the camera. A carnival was due to pass through the town in the afternoon.
But something profoundly terrible was unfolding. At around 2 p.m. a red Vauxhall Cavalier car was driven into Market Street. The two men who got out of it quickly disappeared into the crowds along Campsie Road. No one paid them much attention. No one noticed the car. How could they know that it contained over 500 pounds of explosives attached to a Semtex trigger? How could they know that it would detonate soon and turn thousands of lives upside down? They were just ordinary people out shopping. Why in the world would they have to imagine a thing like that?
At 2:30 p.m. a phone rang at the Ulster Television studios in Belfast. An unidentified man with a thick Northern country accent gave a hurried warning: “There’s a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, Main Street, 500 pounds, explosion 30 minutes.” Then he gave the code word “Martha Pope.” Martha Pope was the name of an aide to Sen. George Mitchell, who had brokered the Good Friday agreement, which had been agreed upon just four months earlier. The same code word had been used a few weeks earlier for a bomb claimed by the Real IRA.
At 2:30, a large group of children on a field trip from my hometown of Buncrana quickly gathered together as the police began to close off the roads. The equally young Spanish exchange students who stayed with them in Donegal each summer — and in many cases had become their closest friends — accompanied them. The majority were not yet teenagers. Earlier in the day they had visited the Ulster American Folk Park and had enjoyed every minute of it. Then the organizers decided to treat them all to a surprise shopping trip to Omagh on the way home. When the bomb alert was announced they were evacuated to safety on Market Street. They congregated within 10 feet of the red Vauxhall Cavalier car.
At 2:35, the final bomb warning was received at Ulster Television in Belfast. This time the hurried voice said: “Bomb, Omagh town, 15 minutes.”
The only target specified in each of the warnings was the Omagh courthouse. But the courthouse was 500 yards from where the red Vauxhall Cavalier car was abandoned, at the other end of the town center. So the police moved people away from the courthouse and directly into the vicinity of the bomb. The poorly given warnings meant that double the number of people were now in the blast vicinity. They were moving into danger, not away from it.
At 3.10, the bomb detonated. Two hundred and twenty-two people were seriously injured or maimed. Twenty-nine people were killed. Nine children (five girls and four boys, including an 18-month-old baby), 14 women and five men died at the scene or on or the way to hospital. One woman who died was seven months pregnant with twins. A grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter were all killed instantly.
Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife, remembers this: “I ran into Kells shop — what was left of it — and I found my wife lying face down in the rubble. The clothes were blown off her. The first thing I reached for was her arm. There was no pulse. I knew she was dead. This was a woman who only went to Omagh twice a year to do her shopping. One day to get school uniforms and one day to get Christmas presents.”
Another eyewitness recalls: “Bodies were lying in the streets, smoke rising from them. The thing that won’t leave me is the smell. Unfortunately there was a burst water main and there were people — bodies — being washed down the footpath, which is something I’ll never forget. They were just basically piling up in the gully, bits and pieces of legs, arms, and whatever, floating down the street.”
Three boys from my hometown were killed in the blast: James Barker and Shaun McLaughlin, who were both 12 years old, and Oran Doherty, who was 8. (Shaun was an altar boy at the local church; James was due to begin Secondary School in September and Oran was a keen Celtic supporter).
They were buried in a joint service. More than 8,000 mourners (almost three times the town’s actual population) bade an anguished farewell to three lost boys. Their friends, other children who had luckily survived the explosion — and still bearing bandages from shrapnel wounds and perforated eardrums — had insisted on attending the services.
James’s parents, Donna and Victor Barker, had moved to my town from their native England for a better quality of life. But now they looked like broken souls as they walked behind their son’s casket.
His mother said: “To see him lying there with half his head gone and those beautiful green eyes looking out at me as if he was waiting for me was devastating. I never realized how green his eyes were. That image will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The Barker’s have since moved back to England. Two years after his burial they had their son’s remains exhumed and reburied near to their new home.
Like the young they cherished, they won’t be coming back.