A RATHFRILAND family whose relatives were injured in the Omagh bomb has said the 20th anniversary of the attack was “extremely hard”.
On 15 August 1998, a Real IRA car bomb exploded in the County Tyrone town, killing 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.
The terrorist attack inflicted the greatest single loss of life of any terror atrocity in the history of the Troubles.
The Hall family from the Banbridge Road, Rathfriland witnessed first hand the devastation of the cowardly attack.
David Hall and his mother Mina, spoke to The Outlook last week on the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bomb about how their family was affected.
Mina Hall and her son David looking through paper cuttings from 20 years ago.
On the day of the bomb David’s late father, Robert faced a long and distressing wait as he hoped for news that his brother Lindsay, and his family had not been caught up in the explosion.
Lindsay, the youngest of four siblings, had moved to Omagh five years before the bomb with his wife Gwen, who is originally from Castlederg.
They went on to have three sons, Michael, Gareth and Alistair and Lindsay had a successful career with the Ulster Bank.
On the day of the bomb, Gwen and her youngest son, Alistair (12) had gone into Omagh to buy a pair of school trousers for the new term.
They were just yards from the bomb when it went off and both suffered life-changing injuries, including the loss of Alistair’s leg.
Speaking about the day of the bomb, David said: “Our relief at finding out Lindsay was not in the bomb soon turned to anguish as we realised Gwen and Alistair had been seriously injured in it.
“They wouldn’t have really gone into Omagh on a Saturday but Alistair needed school trousers.
“I was drawing soil with the tractor and trailer and heard the report of the bomb coming through on the radio.
“Mum and dad then spent the day trying to contact Lindsay and his family to hear of any news.”
Mina said her husband was very close to Lindsay and he wondered straight away if the family were involved.
She says that feeling got worse as he tried calling the house many times and nobody answered.
David continued: “It was an awful time between the search for them and then finding out they had been injured.
“When the bomb went off they were thrown in different directions and Alistair said when he was lying on the ground he went to get up to run away and when he tried to get up he fell, and that’s when he realised he had lost his leg.”
Adding to the family’s anguish, it wasn’t until the day after the bomb that they eventually found out Gwen and Alistair had been injured.
“Dad was in such a bad way when he found out, he was so distressed by what had happened.
“I was working on the farm and daddy came running over in tears to tell us what had happened. We were all just devastated.
“He told me Lindsay had phoned from the hospital to say what had happened and he was in a terrible way.”
Alistair’s right leg was amputated below the knee, but he went on to show extraordinary courage, struggling through long hours of physiotherapy to walk again.
At first Alistair was taken to the casualty ward at Tyrone County Hospital along with hundreds of other people.
Both mother and son were then taken to Altnagelvin Hospital and when Gwen regained consciousness, Alistair was put in the bed beside her.
Gwen also suffered serious leg and head injuries and remains deaf in one ear from the blast.
She was so angry after the attack that she penned a long message to the bombers from her hospital bed.
The letter, which was published in many media outlets at the time, said: “I wish you could have heard that child crying inconsolably yesterday as he struggled with the pain from his severed limb.”
Also in her statement of raw emotion, Gwen asked the “bold lads who ripped the heart out of Omagh” to explain why they had “sent her to hell and back” and left her young son crying in pain.
It was reported that many of the injured gave graphic eye-witness accounts of the blast, but Mrs Hall’s letter was thought to be the first statement wholly directed at those behind the attack.
At the time, she asked her letter to be published as a message to the bombers in a bid to give them a sense of what she and other victims of the attack were going through.
She writes of how she lay injured in the town unsure whether or not Alistair was still alive.
Meanwhile, just three weeks before the attack, Alistair was playing rugby with his elder brother, Michael after his university graduation ceremony in Cardiff.
He was a key rugby player on his school team before he was injured in the bombing and the year following the blast, was saluted when he led out the Irish Rugby team onto the pitch for their match against England.
Alistair pictured a year after the attack aged 13.
Ireland manager at the time, Donal Lenihan had invited him to be the team mascot at the Five Nations Championship in 1999.
David continued: “Alistair never really talked about what happened on that day and the three brothers all left Omagh when they grew up.
“Gareth moved to Australia, Michael moved to Amsterdam and Alistair now lives in Wales and is married to a Welsh woman.
“Gwen and Lindsay still live in Omagh, but the bomb is something that they have tried to put behind them over the years.”
The Rathfriland man says the 20th anniversary of the bomb last Wednesday (15 August) would have been a very hard day for them.
“Lindsay took early retirement after the bomb as he was needed to look after both Gwen and Alistair.
“Alistair had to learn how to walk again over many, many months and he did very well at school and went on to become a prosthetic limb surgeon and worked in this field all over the world.
“Although he does not work in this line of work any more, he has become very successful and his injuries never held him back.”
David says he also had his own thoughts on the day of the anniversary.
“Just like that day 20 years ago I was in my tractor listening to the radio as the tributes and testimonies flooded through.
“I stopped what I was doing to observe the two-minute radio silence and really it was as clear to me as it was 20 years ago. I just remember the numbers of casualties going up and up on the day of the attack.
“Omagh is a very close-knit community and with Lindsay being the bank manager at the time, he knew a lot of the victims.”
Mina, who is in her 90th year, said she also found the anniversary exceptionally hard.
“It was awful. It all came back to me on Wednesday and I was very much thinking of Alistair and Gwen that day more than usual.
“I still remember hearing the news that they had been injured as if it was yesterday. Alistair was a lovely little boy and we went to see him a week after the bomb in hospital, and he was very brave.”
David says as a father of three he would hate for his children to grow up in a world with the kind of violence that was witnessed that day.
“Alistair and Gwen were never bitter after what happened to them and they got on with their lives as best as they could after.
“However, the boys did move away and I suppose maybe they wanted to get away from the sights and scenes that bring back so many memories.”