Firefighters stunned into silence by Omagh bombing

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue's Paddy Quinn Paddy Quinn, who is the Watch Commander at Omagh station. At the time of the Omagh bombing he was a part time firefighter.
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue's Paddy Quinn Paddy Quinn, who is the Watch Commander at Omagh station. At the time of the Omagh bombing he was a part time firefighter.

One of the first firefighters to respond to the Omagh bombing said he and his colleagues were stunned into silence at what they saw.

Omagh station Watch Commander Paddy Quinn was a part-time firefighter on the day of the bomb.

File photo dated 15/08/1998 of police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh

File photo dated 15/08/1998 of police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh

He had been at work at a flooring shop in the Co Tyrone town at 3.10pm on August 15 1998 when the bomb exploded.

"I heard the bomb, I listened out the back door of the shop and could hear women and children," he told the Press Association.

"So I jumped in my car so see if everyone was alright at home, I only went maybe 30 metres when the pager went off and I diverted to the fire station.

"We got a print-out and it said the courthouse, so we assumed it was probably the courthouse and we didn't anticipate any injuries.

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue's Paddy Quinn Paddy Quinn, who is the Watch Commander at Omagh station. At the time of the Omagh bombing he was a part time firefighter

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue's Paddy Quinn Paddy Quinn, who is the Watch Commander at Omagh station. At the time of the Omagh bombing he was a part time firefighter

"So we were fairly relaxed as we responded, then we came along Drumragh Avenue, I saw people running everywhere, there was a dust cloud, and all of a sudden it started to hit us, this was something different, no one spoke.

"As we pulled up, I looked out the window, and my mum was sitting on the kerb. I got out and said, 'mum are you OK?', and she said yeah, and asked me was I OK.

"What I didn't know at that time was she had actually walked in front of the car the bomb was in as it went off. She was carrying these white plastic bags, and all she had was the handles of them."

Mr Quinn said they were limited in terms of what they could do.

"You saw people running everywhere, screaming and people lying on the ground, your first thought is first aid, but I realised first aid was no use to me at that point," he said.

"I had friends coming up to me saying, 'Paddy, I can't find my wife', 'Paddy, I can't find my children'.

"You were going from shop to shop searching, it was so difficult to find anyone.

"You never thought of your own safety, all you wanted to do was get in and see if you could help somebody.

"You just can't take it all in. There was a big Ulster bus being used as an ambulance so we helped people on to it. There was no fire so we got rid of the breathing apparatus and just went searching."

Mr Quinn said the experience changed his perspective, and he rarely speaks about what he saw out of respect for the bereaved families.

"You hear people on TV saying they will never forget some of the things that happened in Northern Ireland, I used to think surely you eventually could, but that day, one of my thoughts was, I know now why people can't forgive," he said.

"It was a strange night (when he got home), Sunday was worse, I couldn't talk to anyone without crying, tears just ran down my face, you'd lift the phone to say hello and you couldn't speak. That's what it did to me and then after a period of time, you get through it.

"I never talked about it at home and this is the most I have talked about it publicly, basically out of respect for the families.

"Sometimes I'll be asked to speak in certain places and people ask me about the Omagh bomb, I usually choke up a wee bit, I can only talk about it a wee bit. That is out of respect for the families."