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Before the Bomb - 15 August, 1998
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Saturday, 15 August 1998 was a busy day for Omagh shoppers. Just two weeks until school resumed after the summer and many parents had their children with them shopping in Omagh's two school-uniform specialists - SD Kells and Watersons. Elsewhere, students home from University were working 'summer jobs' in shops. Other people were shopping for music, groceries, getting a hair cut or just meeting friends. Later that day, a carnival was due to move through the town centre. The town was packed.

Some time around 2pm, a red Vauxhall Cavalier, registration number MDZ 5211 was driven onto Market Street from an easterly direction and parked outside SD Kells clothes shop. The two male occupants walked away from the car down Campsie Road (see map). The shoppers ignored it - little did they know that it contained 140kg (300 pounds) of fertiliser-based explosive attached to a semtex trigger. The car had been stolen in St McCartan's Villas, in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan on the Thursday before. At that time, it bore the southern registration number 91 DL 2554.

The Omagh bomb seconds before it exploded [32kB]The chilling photograph on the left was found by investigators in a camera buried in the rubble. It is surely one of the most poignant images of the whole event. The picture was taken in the minutes before the bomb exploded, clearly showing the red car - with its deadly hidden cargo - beside dozens of oblivious civilians.

Part of this crowd was made up of school children on a trip from Buncrana, county Donegal. The Irish children were hosting Spanish children on an exchange programme. The bomb was to claim the lives of four of these children, as well as a minder.

At the same time, Maggie Hall was working in the headquarters of Ulster Televition in Belfast. Around 14:30 she answered the telephone and heard a man give her a bomb warning. (The transcript of this is given below.) She immediately phoned the RUC's emergency switchboard and spoke to Constable George Mullan. A recording of the phone call shows her saying: "I'm only after getting a call from a man with a country accent, saying there's a bomb in Omagh main street near the courthouse, a 500lb bomb. It's going to go off in 30 minutes". She also told the Constable Mullan that the caller had given the codeword "Malta Pope". Constable Mullan then phoned the warning through to Omagh. He later said that the codeword gave him the "gut feeling" that this was not a hoax. Three minutes later the phone rang again and a second warning was given, this time reducing the time to 15 minutes.

Between these two calls, a female worker at the Coleraine office of the Samaritans charity - whose name has been given as "Hilary Unknown" - answered the telephone and also heard a man give a bomb warning. She immediately phoned the RUC's emergency switchboard at Coleraine, and spoke to Constable Gary Murphy. The recording of her phone call shows her saying: "I have received a bomb call for Omagh town centre approximately 200 yards from the courthouse and the code word Malta Pope was given".

(Codewords are mutually understood phrases between terrorist organisations and the security forces. For the security forces, this helps to reduce the incidence of hoax warnings phoned by pranksters. For the organisation responsible, it helps to ensure that it gets the credit for the bomb: sometimes more than one organisation issues a claim of responsibility after a "successful" bombing.) Malta Pope was the name of an aide of Senator George Mitchell who had chaired the negotiations in 1997 and 1998. This codeword was the same as that given for the Banbridge bomb a few weeks before which had been claimed by the "Real" IRA.

  • Received by Ulster Television at 14:30
    "There's a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, main street, 500 pounds, explosion 30 minutes."

  • Received by the Coleraine office of the 'Samaritans' charity, 14:32
    "Am I through to Omagh? This is a bomb warning. It's going to go off in 30 minutes." [followed possibly by a further piece of information specifying 200 yards from the courthouse].

  • Received by Ulster Television at 14:35
    "Bomb, Omagh town, 15 minutes."

Two of these warnings were phoned from a phone box at McGeough's Crossroads, Forkhill, in south Armagh. The third was phoned from a phone box at Loyes Crossroads, Newtownhamilton, also in south Armagh. Margaret Hall, the UTV worker who received two of the warnings said that the male caller had a "thick northern country accent" and sounded like he was 50-55 years old. She and the Samaritans worker phoned the RUC's control centre in Belfast. The message was then passed to Constable William Hall in Omagh and the police operation was initiated.

The only target specified was the courthouse in Omagh. The street specified does not exist. The map shows that the courthouse is approximately 500 yards from where the car was actually abandoned, at the other end of the town centre. The police cordoned off High Street and moved people away from the courthouse and the top end of the town and moved them towards the supposed safety of Market Street. They began carefully searching the area around the courthouse.

These inaccurate warnings effectively doubled the number of people in the vicinity of the car-bomb when it detonated at 3:10pm. Many of those who were killed had been in High Street, but the misleading warnings meant that they were actually moved into danger, rather than away from it.

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