'It's like a nightmare' for heartbroken families of blaze victims
The funerals of the victims of the fire that claimed the lives of a pregnant mother and three young children in Dublin last Wednesday are due to take place today, following heartbreaking scenes at a prayer service in their memory yesterday.
Family, friends and neighbours gathered at Colliers funeral home in Bray, Co Wicklow, to pay their respects to Annmarie O'Brien (27), her daughter Paris (2) and her unborn son AJ.
The children of Biddy O'Brien, Holly (3) and Jordan (4) who were visiting Annmarie, also perished in the blaze at the Cluainin Cronan apartment complex.
Biddy remains in a critical condition in St James's Hospital, having suffered extensive burns in the fire.
Inside Colliers funeral home, the three coffins and two caskets lay together as grief-stricken mourners filed by, gently laying a kiss or a loving touch to Paris, Annmarie and Jordan who seemed to be resting in innocent and silent sleep.
AJ's coffin and Holly's casket remained closed, and topped with teddy bears.
Surrounding them were photographs depicting the vibrant lives they lived.
One was of Annmarie holding Paris in her arms, and both had a hand on Annmarie's tummy where baby AJ was growing inside her.
Balloons depicting cartoon characters such as Peppa Pig and Spiderman floated in the air at the back of the room, and the only sound was of weeping.
Around 400 people from all over the country arrived in solidarity and left later in tears.
Fr John O'Connor from Shankill, who had married Biddy O'Brien to her husband Jamie, said prayers, along with Fr Paul O'Driscoll who ministers for the Travelling community.
"We've come together this evening to pay our respects to the dead and ask for their eternal rest.
"We pray that the Lord grants eternal rest to Annmarie, Paris, baby AJ, to Jordan and to Holly," said Fr O'Connor.
"We ask the good Lord to bless their families and their friends, and all their loved ones," he added.
After the prayer service, Fr O'Driscoll said the families are only getting through their ordeal "breath by breath".
"It's like a nightmare. They wonder is it really happening," he explained.
"One minute they are okay. It is like the tide. The tide goes out and they are grand for a few little moments, but then it comes back in again and they are back to square one. So it is a rollercoaster.
"When somebody familiar stands in front of them, the emotion is very deep," he added.
Annmarie's partner Sean Patel and Biddy's husband Jamie were both comforted as they arrived. His face etched with grief, Biddy's husband Jamie faces a desperate task.
While he is at the graveside of his children, his wife will be in the intensive care unit of St James's Hospital unaware that they are gone.
Yesterday he was torn between two equally horrific places - the bedside of his critically ill wife and the caskets of his beloved Holly and Jordan.
His family, his friends, and all who care for him tried to comfort him as best they could, but what words do you use in such circumstances?
After the prayer service, the room in Colliers funeral home was cleared for all but close family, to allow them a few moments to try to come to terms with what has happened.
Outside Fr O'Driscoll told of how the families are barely coping with their losses.
Speaking about Biddy, he said that her condition had not changed and that she was still in intensive care where there is "a frightening number of machines and other equipment surrounding her".
"She is getting amazing care, surrounded by a great team," he said.
"She has had serious surgery which took four hours, during which she was given seven units of blood, which has helped her, but it is an awful shock on her system," he added.
It is understood Biddy has undergone skin grafts to treat the burns she received after being rendered unconscious by the toxic smoke from the fire.
Fr O'Driscoll confirmed that Biddy was still unconscious, and that she was not yet aware of the deaths of Holly and Jordan.
"As bad as things are, the worst is yet to come [when she is told of the deaths of her children] but her husband is there at the bedside as much as he can be," he explained.
"I don't know how they are going to face that when she is conscious and she is ready to hear that news," he added.
Fr O'Driscoll also worked closely with the families of victims of the Carrickmines fire that claimed the lives of 10 people, one of them pregnant, 17 months ago.
Spokesman for the Bray Travellers Community Development Group, Jim O'Brien, who is also a cousin of Annmarie, said the cross-community outpouring of grief in the wake of the tragedy has been embraced by the families of those who died.
"We saw it too after the Carrickmines fire which claimed the lives of 10 people.
"We never believed we could ever be in that situation again, yet here we are today," he added.