Creeslough: ‘How this community has coped with this tragedy is testament to its strength’

Local people and businesses come together amid tragedy, offering solidarity and unwavering help to one another

For Brian Dolan, the past 48 hours in Creeslough has been the same as the first hour after an explosion rocked his village.

“We see today on the media the victims’ faces, we see the names — but we knew the names, we knew the faces on Friday,” he says.

“These are our friends, this is our community.”

Dolan was one of the first people at the scene after the explosion at the Applegreen petrol station at around 3.20pm. His wife, Margaret Anne, was there just minutes beforehand.

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Catching his breath in driving rain as he stands across the road from the cordoned off site at lunchtime on Sunday, he adds: “Her till receipt is 15.08.”

Streets in the rural village were deserted from early on Sunday as residents made their way to St Michael’s chapel for a special service.

Bringing people together in the chapel — I think it’s what people need right now. We are a tight community, there’s no doubt about that and everybody is hurt

Nestled at the foot of Mount Muckish, the modern white church is designed in the shape of the hump backed mountain and has become an sanctuary since the tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 local people.

Masses and late night rosaries have been packed out, attended by both villagers and emergency service workers.

The heavy machinery and diggers used in the rescue and recovery operation are now gone, along with the army of first responders, and a silence hangs over Creeslough.

Teresa McGarvey is trying to shield herself from the elements as she walks down the main street. Like most of the village — it has population of less than 400 people — she knows many of the victims.

“I was in that shop two hours before the explosion. The young girl who served me, Martina, she died,” she says, tears streaming down her face.

Her faith is helping her cope but she admits “it probably hasn’t hit us yet”.

“It hasn’t sunk in properly. At the moment we are focusing on being there for each other, helping each other and looking out for each other,” she says.

“Bringing people together in the chapel — I think it’s what people need right now. We are a tight community, there’s no doubt about that and everybody is hurt. As the priest said this morning, what happened was random. I could have been there.

McGarvey went on: “I was just speaking with a woman whose son escaped. He was in the apartment above the petrol station sitting with a cup of tea when the explosion went off. A table came down on top of him saving him from the debris. The table saved his life. She’s in shock and he’s in shock. It’ll all hit home in a few days.”

Garda cordons remain at the site of the explosion and road diversions are still in place.

On Saturday, residents visited throughout the day to quietly pay their respects and comfort each other as they waited for news during the final hours of the recovery effort.

As word came through that the last body had been recovered, villagers weeped.

You just have to think we’re going to come back better and stronger because of this

“It’s the first time in my life I’ve woken up in the morning feeling like I’m living in hell,” says Bernie Ferry. “We know everyone who’s gone. There are no words. It’s just how you feel for other people. It’s like it’s your own.”

By Sunday, it was mainly tourists and those from outside the area calling to leave floral tributes.

Clutching a home made posy of wild flowers and freesia picked from her garden, Co Armagh woman Julie Jordan and her husband, Henry, have travelled up from their holiday home in Dunfanaghy.

“We’ve been coming here since we were children and felt that we wanted to do something. We just wanted to stop by. Six of us were staying in Dunfanghy and we all made posies this morning,” the Lurgan woman says.

“We came up on Thursday evening. It was pouring with rain at the time and we passed the petrol station where there was one of those large ice cream cones at the door. We joked that we should stop for an ice cream.

“On Friday, we were at the golf course and we saw all the fire engines going past ... It is just so sad.”

Directly facing the Applegreen station and overlooking Sheephaven Bay is The Coffee Pod cafe, where staff worked a straight 48-hour shift providing free food to rescue teams and media.

By teatime on Saturday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his officials were sitting in the brightly coloured cafe amid fire crews and reporters, while staff served up piping hot bowls of stew and cream buns.

Refusing payment and tips, manager Siobhán Carr has been inundated with donations of food and money from London to Cork. Sweeping the floor, the quietly spoken Donegal woman said the phone has not stopped ringing. She has not slept.

“People are so kind but we are asking them to donate to the Gofundme page instead of giving to us,” she says. “We only opened our business a year and half ago, it’s a small community where we all know each other. Everybody is rallying round. There’s people coming in here with horrendous news and we’re just trying to help. It is heart breaking.”

Shutting up shop for the first time on Sunday evening, her staff are delivering crates of fresh sandwiches, scones, milk and water to St Michael’s. “The food will be at the back of the chapel for everyone who needs it through the night,” she adds.

As the village prepares for the days ahead and first funerals, one resident who helped in the rescue effort said he hopes that Creeslough won’t be known as a “place of sadness”.

“How this community has coped with this tragedy over the past two days is testament to its strength,” says the man, who does not wish to be named. “You just have to think we’re going to come back better and stronger because of this.”

Brian Dolan says they will keep going. “It’s not going to be easy. There isn’t a plan. We just have to help out the community in any way, small, big or whatever way you can. Help, help, help — that’s all we can do.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times