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Sunday 20 October 2019

Leona O'Neill: 'Bystanders screamed at rioters 'look what you've done' through tears'

Aftermath: Heavily armed police during the unrest in the Creggan area of Derry. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Aftermath: Heavily armed police during the unrest in the Creggan area of Derry. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Leona O'Neill

I have been covering the news in Northern Ireland off and on now for more than 20 years.

Journalists are used to contention and tension and dangerous situations, it can be part of the job. The frequency of meeting such situations can desensitise us, make us complacent.

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That is why what happened to Lyra McKee has broken my heart. I arrived at the scene shortly after 9pm after being alerted to a massive security operation in the Mulroy Gardens area. A house search was being conducted and officers were backed up by at least 10 police vehicles. Crowds of youths began to gather at the junction of Fanad and Central Drives.

At around 9.15pm, the first bottles began to rain down on police, followed by an array of petrol bombs thrown by masked youths. To cheers and whoops, a hijacked work van was abandoned across the street and set alight, closely followed by what looked like a black Audi car. The Fanad Drive area is a densely populated street within a nationalist housing estate. Families spilled onto the street and a row of teenagers had their phones out capturing the flames for Snapchat.

Even though the streets were strewn with broken glass and were on fire, there was no sense of threat or danger. So when 11pm came and a lone masked gunman came out onto the pathway and fired shots indiscriminately up the street towards police vehicles - as well as the neighbours, friends and children from their own community - no one realised what was happening.

As the first 'pop' of gunshots rang out, I took cover behind a wall, but very few others did.

Journalist Lyra McKee. Picture: Jess Lowe
Journalist Lyra McKee. Picture: Jess Lowe

People asked 'are they shots?' No, it's fireworks, someone replied. They're firing blanks, someone else said. They are just trying to scare the police.

I could see a young woman lying at the back, left-hand wheel of a police vehicle, unconscious. Her friends, realising she had fallen, began to scream "she's shot, she's been shot". Someone who loved her screamed at the top of her lungs, a haunting sound I will never forget. There was chaos, disbelief and terror. People gathered around to help. My friend took off his coat to put under Lyra's head. I called 999.

All around me were friends crying, people panicking, others saying she must have fallen and hit her head, she couldn't have been shot. People had blood on their clothes and their hands.

Friends carried her the short distance to a car. The image of her being lifted by the arms and legs, gravely injured, reminded me of the famous picture from Bloody Sunday of the group carrying Jackie Duddy, with Bishop Daly waving a white handkerchief.

Police officers emerged from their vehicle, saw the grave condition the young woman was in and rushed her into the back of their vehicle. They raced through burning barricades and rioters to take her to hospital. Her friends stood embracing and crying.

Bystanders screamed at rioters 'look what you have done' through tears. No one could believe a young woman had been cut down in their streets.

Lyra was a gifted writer, a passionate communicator, a campaigner and a fighter. A brilliant light has gone out and Northern Ireland is a much darker place today without her.

Irish Independent

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