By Patrick Markey
OMAGH, Co. Armagh — Ed Winters’s photographic studio has become a shrine of sorts.
His camera lens has captured hundreds of Omagh lives. Families, young couples, and graduating students in colored, misted and monochrome images hang, framed, at the back of his shop.
But among them are three faces he and many others here cannot forget — Debra Ann Cartwright, Brenda Logue and Esther Gibson.
The morning of Saturday, Aug. 15 1998, Gibson and her fiancT, Kenneth, posed before Winter’s camera for an engagement portrait. They had planned a July wedding. But the couple’s photograph in Winter’s Market Street studio is now a mute monument to Gibson’s last moments.
Within hours of posing for the photograph, Gibson was among the 29 victims of Northern Ireland’s worst atrocity when a 500-pound car bomb exploded yards from Winter’s studio. Cartwright and Logue were also killed in that afternoon’s carnage.
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Hundreds of shoppers filled Market Street when the bomb ripped through the Omagh’s main road, shattering this once tightly knit town that had managed to retain solid cross-community relations while sectarian violence engulfed Northern Ireland.
“I don’t think we’ll ever recover. You share the grief of so many here,” Winters said.
When Omagh’s main street closes down in remembrance this Saturday and the town gathers for a service on Sunday, a small part of the healing process will be over. But a year after the atrocity, Omagh is still wrestling with a communal sense of loss. Hundreds still seek counseling, and the town has yet to rebuild much of the structural and psychological damage left by the explosion.
Mick Grimes, 73, lost his wife, daughter, grand-daughter and two unborn grand-daughters in the explosion. He had hoped some good would come out of the Omagh bombing but found instead the politicians were just bickering as usual.
“I don’t know how the politicians can carry on with their intransigence when so many innocent people have lost their lives,” Grimes said.
“For me this has been a hard and lonely year. I’ve had many changes in my life, too many changes. Our loss has left two houses without a woman.”
Grimes’s wife, Mary, was the only woman in the household. His daughter Avril, who was married to his son-in-law, Michael Monaghan, also died in the blast. When Avril worked, Mary Grimes would look after Avril’s older children, Aoibheann, 6, Ailisha, 5, and Patrick, 4. Avril’s youngest child, 18-month-old Maura, died with her.
“They would also come to visit as a family on Sundays, too, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Surely we should have peace before the end of this century?” he said.
For Claire Gallagher, it is the little things that most upset her. Gallagher, aged 16, lost her sight in the explosion.
“Every Saturday at 3.10 p.m., I think about what happened. I’m trying not to think about how I’ll feel on the actual anniversary,” she said.
“Different things upset me. Hearing the peace process has gone wrong, and little things like I can’t find the right color cardigan.
“Now I’ve met so many famous people, the Clintons, the Blairs, Sir Alex Ferguson [manager of Manchester United football club]. But I’d give all that up to get my sight back.”
Along Market Street, the shoppers have returned. But the physical damage there remains a constant and haunting reminder of last year’s destruction.
“I don’t think you can walk past that without remembering. People want to see something back there. The gap in the streetscape is a reminder of the bomb,” said John McKinney, leader of Omagh District Council, which has put together the Omagh Renewal and Beyond project.
The plan envisions a reconstruction, not just of the Market Street area, but covers everything from trauma needs to bringing new business into the area to revitalize the community. It will cost, the council estimates, approximately _44 million.
But whatever projects seek to rebuild Omagh, memories of the horror are still fresh for many.
Speaking in the leisure center where he works, Conor McCrory remembers the flood of injured who clambered up the ramp leading into the sports complex.
Where children now clatter along the tiled floor in studded football boots, and others watch the television in the canteen area, a year ago on Saturday, the same area served as a makeshift first aid center.
Victims streamed inside. McCrory’s young staff pulled on rubber gloves, picking out glass and bits of car out of faces, legs and arms.
Families waited inside for news of missing relatives. McCrory recalls walking past some with the names of their dead relatives tucked under his arms, unable to say anything. It wasn’t his job amid the crisis. He had to pass that information onto the trauma team to relate.
Outside the center, hours after the explosion, one of McCrory’s staff found a jagged piece of purple metal, protruding from the playing field — a piece of a car, perhaps the car, blown 500 yards from Market Street.
After hours of waiting for word, McCrory said, the worst moment came when the trauma team asked parents to bring in photographs of their children to help identify their bodies. Two dentists walked through the families carrying dental records to help in the identification process.
Those names still reel through McCrory’s mind at night. Like others, McCrory said, he is dealing with the approaching anniversary as best he can.
“Some people are saying, ‘I’m clearing out of town, anywhere, any way.’ But other people want to stay and give respect,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter where you ago, you can’t get away from it.”
(Anne Cadwallader contributed to this story.)