Belfast bomb victim Adrian Ismay was 'gentle giant who didn't live to see new grandchild'
The feelings of outrage and anger that gripped the Cregagh Road area of Belfast after the dissident republican bomb attack on a prison officer 12 days ago were compounded yesterday by a sense of shock after the victim, who was due to become a grandfather, died from a suspected heart attack.
Adrian Ismay had been recovering well after the bomb partially exploded underneath his van on Friday, March 4, just yards away from his home in Hillsborough Drive.
The 52-year-old father-of-three had even been able to talk to First Minister Arlene Foster about what had at first been perceived as his lucky escape in the blast.
All that tragically changed yesterday morning as Mr Ismay, who was described as a gentle giant, became ill at his home. Local people said they watched in horror as doctors and paramedics rushed to his semi-detached Hillsborough Drive house, where they battled in vain to save the prison officer's life. The PSNI later said that Mr Ismay passed away in hospital yesterday morning.
Leading members of the Prison Officers Association (POA) who had been planning to visit their colleague were stunned to discover that he had died.
"I was preparing to go to see him at his home, but when I rang a colleague I was devastated to be told that Adrian had literally just died," said Finlay Spratt, the chairman of the POA, who had visited Mr Ismay in hospital last week.
"It's desperate news for his family. He was a lovely man - a gentle giant."
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton insisted police would have to wait for medical evidence before confirming the death would be treated as murder.
But Mr Spratt said: "I hold the person who planted that bomb responsible for Adrian's death."
On the Woodstock and Cregagh Roads furious residents agreed with Mr Finlay's assessment. They said the New IRA, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, was guilty of murder. "Adrian would be alive today if those animals hadn't put that bomb under his van," added one man who wished to remain anonymous. "What else was it that killed the poor man?"
On Hillsborough Drive, beside the spot where Mr Ismay was injured in the blast just after 7am on March 4, a simple floral tribute was left only a short time after his death was reported on the news. "I just cannot believe it," said Norman Calderwood, who was returning to his home from a morning shopping trip with his wife Patricia.
"We were all relieved to hear the police saying that Mr Ismay had escaped with his life from the explosion," he added.
"People around here were obviously upset about the blast, but we all thought he would be okay.
"It was just heartbreaking to learn from passers-by on the road this morning that Mr Ismay had passed away."
Patricia added: "What makes it even worse is that Mr Ismay's daughter is expecting a wee baby. She works just up the road.
"I think it is absolutely terrible that someone would do this. I thought these days were supposed to be gone.
"To bomb a man on his way out to do a day's work is despicable."
Another of Mr Ismay's daughters, who has Down's syndrome, is believed to have been volunteering at a charity shop just around the corner from where the bomb exploded.
However, at the Marie Curie shop a member of staff said: "I'm sorry, but I can't confirm anything like that."
A few doors away, at a card shop on the Cregagh Road, neighbours had already started buying sympathy cards for the distraught Ismay family.
"They are a very well-respected family here," said one man.
A woman who lives close to the Ismays in Hillsborough Drive added: "Adrian was a lovely, quiet big man. You would never have heard him raise his voice or see him losing his temper with anyone.
"He was a hard-working man who tried to help the community."
A friend told how the Ismay family had been devastated by the death, particularly as they thought he had come through the worst of his ordeal.
"They were allowing themselves to think that he would get over this nightmare and rebuild his life," they added. "But no one knows what is going on in the body after the sort of trauma that Adrian suffered."
The PSNI was also briefing journalists last week that Mr Ismay's injuries were not as extensive as initially thought earlier this month, when it had also said the fact that the bomb had fallen from Mr Ismay's van after he drove over a speed ramp in Hillsborough Drive had probably saved him from immediate death.
Mr Ismay had worked in the Prison Service for 28 years and was a trainer based at Hydebank Wood training college, where officers, like those at Maghaberrry and Magilligan Prisons, have been put on a state of high alert.
"We've been told that there will be more attempts to kill prison officers as the dissidents in Maghaberry try to put pressure on the authorities to get control of their part of Roe House," said one jail source.
At Hydebank yesterday morning visits were going ahead as normal, but one man who works there said: "People here are distraught. Adrian was very popular and there have been more than a few tears shed for him."
Mr Spratt said that dissident claims that Mr Ismay had been training prison officers on how to handle the situation in Roe House were nonsense.
"He was a trainer pure and simple, and he treated everybody the same no matter who they were."
Police are investigating reports that Mr Ismay's work beyond the Prison Service may have made him particularly vulnerable to dissident attacks.
He had received widespread publicity in May 2010 after he was recognised for 12 years' service with the St John Ambulance organisation, though his association with the group ended several years later.
His address was readily available on the internet and many of his details were listed along with his photograph in a website called Remote Emergency Care, which said Mr Ismay was a professional staff trainer and an associate lecturer at the Ulster University.
It added he was a former Royal Navy officer who had a keen interest in the outdoors, including providing medical cover for racing events.
He was also described as a volunteer with search and rescue teams.