Thursday, May 08, 2008

56. my home was wrecked in an IRA bomb

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??


Anonymous said...

My eyes filled up when I read this blog just as they did on a daily basis for a whole year after it happened. Do you remember the evening when we were eating our dinner and there was the sound of running water - rain pouring in through the roof, through the bedroom floor and flowing like a river through the kitchen. That was the night we added our bed to the list of ruined furniture.
Fortunately we came through that experience, learned to appreciate and care for each other, and to value the many fantastic friends who helped us through the next 18 months until we were back to some sort of normality again.

Ali said...

A-hem, OUR bed??? I think you mean MY bed!!!

Nancy Mon said...

Isn't it interesting how much I care now because I have met online friends of Belfast. Back then I watched with interest the happenings in Ireland but that news wasn't alive in me because of not knowing anyone there. Thanks for sharing this part of your life story. It is amazing how we make it through to the other side of events in our lives. Glad you got the heck out of Dodge.

Anonymous said...

Wow, and I was just thinking that one of the most vivid memories I have of childhood is the multi-colored shag carpet that was in everyroom of our home - each room a different color.

Ali, that is an amazing story!

St said...

The further I get from the Tavern in the Town Birmingham, autumn 1974 the closer it feels. It was one of my regular haunts. I was in there the night before.

Thanks for your post. Beautifully recalled and written.

Dana said...

Amazing story...and like Nancy said, it hits closer to home now because of my new friends in Belfast...

Cosmo said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to get around to reading this...

A fascinanting insight into one family's experience of one event of the Troubles. The stories of all the rest must be countless.

For me, the part of the story that stood out was the gathering of local clergy from both sides of the community in order to share in your sufferings. It was (and still is) very easy to blame religion as the cause of so much evil. Small acts of grace, such as you have described in the clergymen, suggest otherwise.

Thanks for recounting this powerful, and life-effecting, experience.

Ali said...


Thats exactly the problem! The media needed a handy hook to hang these events on and so religion was blamed, and that's how the world at large saw it. But actually, those of us who knew knew it had very, very little to do with religion.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother lived at number 10, Brerton Crescent. Reading your story brought it all back. Do you remember the street party the following year when the last residents were finally able to move back into their homes?