By Patrick Markey
Conor McCrory will never forget the screams.
At first he thought the noise he heard was cries of seagulls circling overhead. But it was the sound of constant screams.
A sports development officer for his local district council, McCrory was in his garden a few hundred yards from where a 500-pound car bomb ripped through Omagh town on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 15.
Fearing the explosion had hit the Omagh Leisure Complex where he works, McCrory led his family to safety, started up his car and drove to the center. Then he saw the plumes of smoke billowing over the town.
Soon, McCrory and other staff at the center had set up an emergency incident center, where employees trained in first aid started tending the wounded, pulling glass from torn limbs and consoling those searching for missing relatives.
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“It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do, to console people. We had 600 or 700 reported missing that day, People were waiting to find out for 27, 28 hours after,” he said.
Six weeks after a car bomb planted by the Real IRA ravaged the streets of Omagh leaving 29 dead and hundreds injured, residents are still struggling to terms with the disaster. On Tuesday, the Omagh City Council held a press conference to announce how the funds from relief operations would be used, starting the slow process to healing the town.
“The works starts here. They have an enormous job ahead of them,” McCrory said.
In Irish communities in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, residents have also pulled together to assist the families and victims of the worst single bomb attack in 30 years of the Northern Irish Troubles. As with other tragedies to hit the Irish community, such as the death of Liam Mason and the killing of the three Quinn brothers, relief efforts in America took off rapidly.
In New York, a few phones calls among Tyrone natives living in America and a committee was in motion.
Sean Rice, who runs the Irish Rover in Astoria, Queens, was at home when his downstairs neighbor called to say a bomb had exploded in Tyrone. It took him four hours to get through to Omagh by telephone and discover his family was safe. A few calls later and the idea for the fund-raiser was broached.
“With something of this magnitude and with it hitting so close to home, we had no problem getting people to lend a hand. Everyone wanted to do something,” Rice said.
“We had a lot of ideas, but we really felt we had to pick the things we could follow through with, that would allow people to express how they related to the bombing,” he said.
3 fund-raisers scheduled
The Omagh Relief Fund, N.Y., was established in Queens with a sub-committee in the Bronx. So far, the committee has raised $3,000 to $4,000, and organizers have yet to hold three fund-raising events in Queens, the Bronx and later in Manhattan, Rice said. All donations will be funneled through the Omagh Relief Fund in Tyrone to ensure the monies are properly dispersed. Those working here for relief said although financial aid is needed, Omagh has a long way to go. Wounds, both physical and emotional, are still fresh.
“The town is never going to be the same. With the bomb scares over the last few weeks, it’s horrific what the families have to go through. People are still devastated,” Rice said.
In Northern Ireland, fund-raising for the victims has come from every corner. Golf pro and Tyrone native Darren Clarke has reportedly raised _348,000 and Irish newspapers also reported that a two-legged charity football match between Northern Ireland and Ireland is slated for sometime later this year. One paper has reported that Liam Neeson has donated rewards from a libel action against a British newspaper that had reported his split with Natasha Richardson.
According to Aine Norton, who represents the New York relief effort in Northern Ireland, the Omagh Relief Fund has collected more than _800,000 in pledged donations so far. Although there have been some complaints about the speed of the hand-outs, Omagh council members have met with organizers of similar disaster relief efforts, such as the Hungerford relief fund, to make sure that their operation runs smoothly, she said.
The money will be divided on a basis of greatest need first. About 20 volunteers will be trained and sent out to families of the bereaved and injured to assess their needs. Already emergency payments have been handed out and another payment is expected this week, Norton said. All payments from the fund, which will be confidential, will be made to not conflict with government payments, such as compensation and social security.
According to Norton, the British National Health Service, which manages hospital and health administration in Northern Ireland, has already spent _2.5 million on treating those injured in the Omagh bombing.
At a press conference in Omagh on Tuesday, five trustees for the fund in Omagh laid out who would receive aid. More than 370 were injured in the attack, some are still in hospital, and many of those released are still attending as outpatients, Sean O’Dwyer, fund chairman said in a statement. An additional 2,000 people have visited their local doctors suffering from mental or emotional trauma, he said. He estimated that 450 to 700 victims would benefit from the fund.
Dr. Clive Russell, director of several medical operations for Omagh victims told local newspapers that most difficult stage would come with the continued trauma counseling both for the victims and those who took part in the emergency operations. Many of those involved in the disaster were only now starting to show the signs of trauma.
“With a town of a population of only 25,000, and 29 people dead and over 300 injured, so many people have been effected. It’s had a devastating effect on everybody,” Aine Norton said.
The Omagh Relief Fund will hold two fund-raisers: on Sunday, Oct. 11, at the Towerview Center, Queens, and on Friday, Nov. 6, in Gaelic Park, the Bronx. A third fund-raiser is planned for Manhattan in November. Donations can be made to the Omagh Relief Fund, c/o Emerald Isle Immigration Center, 59-26 Woodside Ave., Woodside, NY 11377.