Wednesday 23rd September 1992
The PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army) exploded a huge bomb, estimated at 2,000 pounds, at the Northern Ireland Forensic Science laboratories in Newtownbreda, south Belfast. This was the biggest bomb the IRA had ever used in Northern Ireland, and the building was completely destroyed. My house was directly behind the Forensic Science labs, and it and most of the others in our street were destroyed with it.
Some said it was an attempt to destroy evidence in the labs. Others maintained that the massive bomb had been intended for RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, or police) headquarters at Knock in east Belfast, but that the police had had a tip-off and security in that area was tight, so instead they drove to the Forensic labs and dumped their bomb there.
The Provisionals used a 'van bomb', basically a lorry loaded with explosives, which they abandoned on the public road in front of the building without warning. Let me explain 'without warning'. On occasions, the IRA would have telephoned bomb warnings through to the media or the Samaritans to give the police and army an opportunity to cordon off the affected area and remove 'innocent' people before the bomb exploded. (nice of them)
So no warning, but such was the level of fear in Belfast at the time that any empty vehicle near any government facility was immediately declared suspicious and as a result, and 8.25pm, the police arrived at our front door to say they were evacuating the area because there was a van that might be suspicious, and could we please leave.
Well, my dad has just brought all his shoes downstairs and had started cleaning them, and when the officer left he returned to his polishing job, unperturbed as usually these things were hoaxes and anyway the police hadn't seemed that urgent and hadn't said we had to go.
Mum, on the other hand was a bit more concerned and insisted that dad leave his shoes and we all leave the house. Our neighbours were beginning to saunter down the street at a leisurely pace but we called with an elderly lady who lived across the road to take her with us, and because she was quite frail, dad decided he would take the car.
Our street was a cul-de-sac, and in order to get out, we all actually had to go towards the bomb, so when the lorry exploded just before 8.40pm we were literally 100/150 yards away from it. I remember the flash. Everything went orange, and I vividly remember curling in a ball, putting my fingers in my ears and thinking 'wow, the bang's going to be big when it comes!'
And it was. The force lifted the car off the road. It blew people around us off their feet. And I remember seeing 'stuff' flying through the air. Turned out that 'stuff' was blasted parts of lorry - two foot of the axle was located in our back garden the next morning.
Miraculously, and it really was a miracle, only twenty people were injured, (none seriously) but approximately 700 houses were damaged in the blast. When we were eventually allowed back to our house later that night I remember looking at the front of it and thinking how pretty it looked, like a Christmas tree draped with icicles, only the icicles were the jagged remains of our double glazed windows. And I also remember being a bit cross that nobody had thought to close the front door before we had left earlier, until we found the front door blown off it's hinges, through the hall and into the kitchen.
Then I had my first experience of the 'Dunkirk spirit'. Neighbours helping neighbours sweep up glass and make their homes as secure as possible that first night. Candles were shared and people set up barbecues and portable gas rings in the street to boil water. People from voluntary agencies arrived with soup, sandwiches and flasks of hot water and somewhere down the street someone had a radio blaring; the song? Annie Lennox 'Walking on Broken Glass'!! And in the wee small hours, the moderators of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic churches appeared out of nowhere and shared a dram of whiskey.
The cost of repairs was estimated at £6 million. We never got back all the money we had to spend fixing our house. Nobody did. We had so much structural work that needed to be done that it was into the new year before I was able to sleep in my own bedroom again. Up until that point I camped out on the floor in the lounge, sleeping under the Christmas tree over the holiday period. Oh yes, our houses might have been blown to bits, but we all still had our Christmas decorations up!
Somewhere, there are photographs. I have hunted all over for them ... twice. I will hunt again and if I find them I will post the visual evidence. Until then you'll just have to use your imagination. Probably the more vivid the better!
Just for the record, that wasn't the first attack on the Forensic site. In 1975 significant damage was caused to the premises when an employee was forced by the Provisional IRA to drive a car bomb, basically a car loaded with explosives, up to the building. That bomb, however, caused only moderate damage. I remember that night well too, because the resulting fire in the labs set off all the stored ammunition and we had to be evacuated in the middle of the night in case a stray bullet found it's way through one of our windows!
Don't you all just wish you'd had the chance to grow up in Belfast??