Monday 23 April 2018

I couldn't see anything. It felt like I was in the middle of a dream

Bomb survivor, Tom O'Mahony, Dublin

A year in hospital: Tom O'Mahony, who was injured in a terrorist attack in Spain when he was 10 years old, at his home in Rathmines. Photo: Arthur Carron
A year in hospital: Tom O'Mahony, who was injured in a terrorist attack in Spain when he was 10 years old, at his home in Rathmines. Photo: Arthur Carron

Catherine O'Mahony

Most of us reacted with horror at the news of the bomb in ­Manchester that ­targeted children and teenagers, but Dubliner Tom O'Mahony had a stronger reason than most to recoil.

When he was 10 years old, he and his mother were caught up in a bomb attack by the Basque terrorist group ETA. Both suffered burns and other injuries. Tom's recovery was very slow.

Now 31, Tom has an inkling how the children injured in the Manchester blast may react.

"The little kids won't have a clue what's going on," he said. "So many will end up in hospital. It's going to be very difficult for them to deal with."

Tom and his mother were on holiday in 1996 in the Spanish resort town of Salou, on the north-eastern coast. It was high season and the sun was very hot. Too hot. They decided to cut their holiday short and return to Dublin a few days early. That turned out to be a fateful decision.

At the small regional airport, they walked past a bathroom at the precise point that ETA detonated a bomb hidden there. They took the worst of the impact. Though it's not clear exactly what happened, Tom must have been lifted off his feet. In any case, his femur was broken, he had other shrapnel injuries and extensive burns.

"It happened in a split second," said Tom. "When I opened my eyes I was on the ground and everything was covered in dust. I couldn't see anything. It felt like I was in the middle of a dream."

As he lay there stunned, a man ran up to him, picked him up and carried him outside the airport. The man laid him on the ground and then left him to go back inside and see who else he could help. That man, he later discovered, was not an employee of the airport or from the police, he was just another tourist. Left alone, Tom drifted in and out of consciousness. He doesn't remember much more from the airport. But he does remember that he couldn't feel any pain whatsoever, although he should have done. He had third-degree burns all down his left side as well as his broken leg. Eventually he blacked out.

It was two full days later when the 10-year-old awoke again. By then he was in a hospital and his mother was beside him. She had been taken to a different hospital and had a tough time finding her son. His mother also had injuries, including burns. Tom says she still has scars.

The Spanish hospital inserted a bolt into his broken leg and gave him, as a parting gift, three small pieces of metal that had been extracted from his body.

He remembers one was "like a ball bearing". It had been in his back.

Within a few days they were travelling home to Ireland by air ambulance, their journey luckily covered by insurance.

However, Tom's ordeal was only starting. He was transferred to Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, where he would remain for a full year. His burns healed quickly and left no scars. But something about the way his leg was treated in Spain, he believes, led him to experience repeated infections around the wound. Again and again he hoped to be discharged but it never happened. He spent Christmas on the ward.

"The bomb was the easiest bit really," he now reflects. "It was the time in hospital that was the hardest. I just wanted to sit in my own house and watch television."

Tom says he would worry in particular for girls affected by bomb injuries. "For a boy like me, a few scars are really regarded as okay; but for girls it's something totally different."

He says he still isn't sure why the whole Spanish incident happened. His understanding was that a phone warning had been given but the airport hadn't been cleared.

He says the attack doesn't dominate his thoughts. But when a bomb attack happens, and especially if children are involved, it comes back to him.

The bombing was one of dozens carried out in Spain over several decades by the ETA groups determined to seek independence for the Basque area. More than 30 people, mostly British tourists, were injured in the airport attack that affected Tom and his mother. Over the years of ETA attacks, thousands more were left with injuries.


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