UTV Podcast: Omagh bombing united town after worst day of the Troubles

The latest episode of the UTV Podcast marks the 25th anniversary of the Omagh bombing.

On August 15, 1998 a dissident republican attack devastated the Co Tyrone town, killing 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injuring hundreds of others.

It came just months after the historic Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and was the greatest loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

No-one has ever been criminally convicted of the attack.

To mark the anniversary, UTV Bureau Editor Peter Moor and Correspondent Gareth Wilkinson talked to some of those that were among the injured and lost loved ones as well as those first responders.

Gareth grew up in Omagh.

"Everyone has an Omagh bomb story," he tells Peter, "it is hard to believe 25 years has passed. It fells like a generation ago."

As part of a special report they talk to Donna-Marie McGillion who suffered 60% burns and was given a 20% chance of survival. She also lost her niece in the bombing. She was forced to delay her wedding which had been planned for the following week.

Her and her partner Garry were out shopping for wedding shoes for her 21-month-old niece Breda when the bomb detonated. Donna-Marie woke up six-and-a-half-weeks later not knowing what had happened. She and Garry married in March 1999.

Gareth says: "She became the 'symbol of survival'.

"Their wedding was not just a wedding, but a wedding for the whole town, which was remarkable and it was celebrated right across Northern Ireland.

"It really was a message, that they may have injured us, but our lives will go on'.

"It brings into sharp focus all those memories from 1998."

They also spoke with best friends Rachel Galbraith and Kate Walls who were severely injured on the day. Kate lost a limb below the knee while Rachel still receives surgery for shrapnel and other injuries.

In their 20s at the time of the attack they had been planning a skydive - which they just completed at the weekend.

"They are still close friends," says Gareth, "they say they understand each other best.

"Remarkably they decided to do the sky dive, to realise that ambition they had...it has been an amazing accomplishment for both these friends."

Paddy McGowan was an independent councillor at the time and the manager at the local bus depot. He was also an on-call fireman.

Gareth says: "What you have to remember was those first on the scene were not the emergency services, but the local people. 

"Paddy realised, such was the scale of the devastation the ambulance service would struggle to copy and he immediately commandeered a number of buses to ferry them to the hospital as soon as possible. 

"He estimates around 70 to 80 people were on those buses."

Mr Dominic Pinto is a revered figure, known as Dr Pinto, he is held in the highest esteem for his work in the local hospital.

He put into place the emergency response plan to the attack in the immediate aftermath, which he drew up himself.

"He is 86," says Gareth, "and he has the most amazing power of recall and talks in the most matter-of-fact way about what he did on that day.

"And you get a sense of how he was able to cope and save so many lives."

Gareth adds: "When you look back there was nobody may be then who believed that Omagh could recover as a town. 

"But in fact Omagh not just recovered it has become symbol of a community that has come closer... rather than be divided it has been united. It is a town where cross community relationships were always very strong. 

"They came even closer over the years and it is that spirit that has helped the town get to a place where they have moved on, but they never ever forget. 

There is also a sense of pride in Omagh that it became ultimately a beacon of hope and inspiration and that what happened was so terrible, it brought to an end the worst of the violence Northern Ireland has seen through the Troubles. 

"That what happened in Omagh was so awful that really Northern Ireland has never gone back to witness scenes of that scale ever again and for the people of Omagh that brings a level of comfort as well."

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