Buncrana weeps for three local children and two Spanish
Shock and silence hung in the air over Knockala Drive in Buncrana yesterday as two families waited for the bodies of their young sons blown to death in the Omagh bombing to be brought home.
Three Buncrana boys, Oran Doherty (8), Sean McLaughlin (12) and James Barker (12) were killed in the blast. They were among 10 local children who went on a trip to Omagh on Saturday with more than 30 Spanish students. A Spanish student, Fernando Blas co (11), and a group leader, Ms Rocia Abad (23), also died.
In a town with a population of 3,500, the tragedy was a heavy burden. Neighbours stood huddled in small groups along Knockala Drive, a hillside estate overlooking the beauty of Lough Swilly, where Sean and Oran lived four doors from each other.
Two other boys from the same tiny estate are still seriously ill in hospital. One of them, Emmet McLaughlin, is a cousin of Sean. The family of James Barker came from England to live in Porthaw, in another part of the town, less than a year ago.
Oran was the third-youngest in a family of seven children. His eldest sister, Amanda (20), said the family was devastated. "The poor wee thing, we're just shocked. We can't take it in." As she talked her three-year-old brother, Oisin, played on the bonnet of a car, oblivious to the tragedy that had befallen the family. "We were waiting the other night for 18 hours to hear. We were waiting and hoping. It was the longest night of our lives. My parents are just in pieces. Words couldn't describe how we're feeling.
"They left here happy as Larry skipping down the road. Wee innocent children going away for the day all excited. No one ever thought anything like this could happen. I hope they get the ones who did it, but no, you couldn't do enough to them, to make up for what they did to us and those wains," she said.
Her distraught father, Michael, who went to Omagh to identify his son's body, paced up and down the street, as if he couldn't bear to wait inside. Neighbours shook his hand and a garda called with the latest information on when the children's bodies would be released.
A friend of the McLaughlin family, Martin O'Donnell, said people were disgusted at the bombing. "They are supposed to be doing this in the name of Ireland. They can keep Ireland if they're doing this for Ireland," he said. Another man standing nearby added: "They are worse than cannibals."
Martin O'Donnell said words couldn't explain what John and Tricia McLaughlin were going through. "I've known them all my life, and to see them here today with the heart just torn out of them. This day last week we were playing football, now they're to come home in boxes," he added.
Each of the families went through an agonising wait on Saturday night. At first a report went around the estate that the boys had been found. Eventually at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday it was confirmed that they were dead.
The only small consolation yesterday was that the conditions of Emmet McLaughlin and Ronan McGrory (13) were improving. Ten Spanish, including two group leaders, were also still in hospital yesterday, a number of them in intensive care. Five other Spanish students were taken back to Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry yesterday when it was discovered they were suffering from perforated eardrums and minor shrapnel wounds.
At Buncrana's Scoil Iosagain, where the Spanish students attended classes, trained counsellors spent the day with the children who came home from Omagh. There were poignant reminders of the tragedy, including a poster advertising the trip, telling pupils to bring sterling for "shopping in Omagh".
This was also the school Oran and Sean attended. Sean was one of six pupils to go to Aras an Uachtarain in June to meet the President, Mrs McAleese. Pictures on a no tice board showed him laughing and playing on the lawns of the Aras. Beside these was a copy of a poem submitted by the children on the theme of bridge-building. The message seemed too painfully appropriate:
Orange and Green - it doesn't matter United now Don't shatter our dream Scatter the seeds of peace over our land So we can travel Hand-in-hand across the bridge of Hope.
Ms Christine Waldron, a trained counsellor, spent the day with the children. "They are going on adrenalin. When that goes and they're back to normality, the enormity of what happened will hit them. The Spanish kids want to stay. They don't want to be separated, they feel safe in that room now."
Ms Sinead McLaughlin, the principal of Scoil Iosagain and co-ordinator of the Donegal Language Centre, which has been based at her school for the past 10 years, said simply: "It's a nightmare.
"We all feel so responsible, yet the only ones who are responsible are those who planted the bomb. I can't believe there can be people so evil living among us."
Everywhere in the town people had stories to tell. Alan Doherty said his 11-year-old sister, Rita Marie, who escaped injury, was on the phone to their mother from Omagh when the bomb exploded.
"She was telling her about the bomb scare. My mother heard the bomb go off and then the phone went dead. She thought my sister was dead as well. You don't think about who did it or why. They are just scum. All you think of is that the wains are being brought home in coffins."