By Jack Holland Garry and Donna-Marie McGillion, survivors of the Omagh bombing, were in New York last week to thank the American Ireland Fund for its contributions toward building Omagh Community House on the site of the Real IRA atrocity that claimed 29 lives in August 1998.
Garry McGillion and Donna-Marie Keyes had scheduled their wedding for Saturday, Aug. 22, 1998. When the big day was only a week away, the young couple decided to take Garry’s niece Breda Devine, who at 18 months was to be their youngest flower girl, into town to buy her a pair of shoes for the occasion. Tracey, Breda’s mother, accompanied them, pushing her child in the carriage through the bustling crowds of Market Street. That Saturday, the 15th, was market day in Omagh, and the town was bustling. There was added excitement because of the carnival that was on its way and due to arrive at about 3:30 that afternoon.
When the four reached Market Street, they heard that there was a bomb scare at the court house.
"Everybody was running about, laughing and joking and carrying on, just the usual bantering of a Saturday afternoon," recalled Garry, noting that no one seemed to take the warning seriously at first. "Mothers getting school uniforms for their kids and stuff. . . . Everybody seemed to be in the town that day," he said.
The shop they wanted to go to was in the bottom end of the town, so the four decided to get their business done as quickly as they could and get home "in case anything did happen," as Garry put it.
As they were coming out of the shop, there were still joking, as people were bantering them about the fact that this time next week they’d be an "auld married couple." Then they met a policeman who told them that they would have to move toward the end of the street because of the scare. They followed his instructions, Donna-Marie now pushing the pram. They moved toward Lower Market Street. They did not notice the Vauxhall Cavalier one-and-a-half car-lengths away from where they were. It contained a 500-pound bomb made up of the explosive Semtex, fertilizer and fuel oil, and it was about to explode.
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"On our way down to the bottom end of the town . . . the bomb went off," Garry said. He did not see anything, but felt what he described as a powerful "electric shock" going through him. "It was total mayhem. There was first a long, deadly silence, then all of a sudden complete uproar, children shouting for their mothers, mothers shouting for their children."
Garry remembers struggling to his feet and tearing off his shirt, which was in flames.
"The first thing was to look for the child," he said. Then he noticed Donna-Marie. She was so badly injured that he thought, "This is it. This is a nightmare." He spoke to her and when there was no answer, he thought she must be dead. But he tried again. This time she answered him, asking where Breda was, and then she moved her hand. Her other hand was still holding on to the pram. A heavy shop sign from a hardware store had fallen down on top of her and Breda. Garry pulled it off them.
"I heard my sister shouting for the child," Garry continued. He freed the pram from the rubble and lifted the little girl. He told his sister he had the child and that she’d be OK. He heard an ambulance and with Breda in his arms ran toward the top of the town.
"I was met by policemen and they took the child off me and passed it over to a traffic warden and she took the child to hospital," Garry said. He wanted to go back down to the scene of the explosion to do what he could for the other victims. He was stopped by a policeman who told him, "No way — you’re going to hospital."
"I never really realized what was wrong with me," he recalled. Thirty-five percent of the right side of his body and the back of his head were covered with third-degree burns. He had shrapnel injuries to his legs, and he had lost part of the muscle in the upper part of his right arm.
"The last thing I remember," said Donna-Marie, "was coming out of the shop." She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where her parents came in search of her later that day. They passed her bed six times without recognizing her. The only way one of her friends did recognize her was from her engagement ring.
She had gone into a coma from which she would not emerge for over five weeks. But her trauma had just begun.
"I had 65 percent third-degree burns to my face, upper body and lower leg," Donna-Marie said. As well, she had shrapnel wounds, a large laceration to her forehead and lung damage.
Breda’s fate had been deliberately kept from Garry during the time he was being treated, and it was not until Donna Marie was recovering that she was told. The child had died soon after reaching hospital.
"I was really scared", Donna Marie said when asked how she reacted when she realized the full extent of what had happened that August afternoon. She had never experienced paramilitary violence. "My heart always went out to people" that had suffered. Occasionally, she felt anger.
"But Garry and I talked about the anger. We decided that anger would get us in the end, it wouldn’t get the people that had done this. It would only ruin our lives and we weren’t prepared to let them ruin our lives any more than they had already done so," she said.
Donna-Marie, who was wearing a transparent plastic mask attached to her face, needs at least five more years of surgery. In the meantime, both she and Garry are committed to the peace process.
"You have to believe it’s going to work," she said.
On their trip to New York, she they were visiting the Hayden Planetarium and the Bronx Zoo, among other things.
"It’s a constant video in your head," said Garry of the explosion. "It’s always there, constantly to the fore all the time."
At Christmas, she said, it is especially difficult.
"When mothers and fathers are sorting out Santa Claus, there’s that one less to buy for," Garry said. "You know that space will never be filled again."
Donna-Marie and Garry were married on March 27, 1999. In a few years, they plan to start a family.
"We are really survivors of the Omagh bombing, not victims," Donna-Marie said.
(Donors for the Omagh Community House may address their contributions to the Omagh Community House, c/o The American Ireland Fund, 111-B East 35th St., New York, NY 10016.)