Monday 18 December 2017

‘I thought we were all going to die’ - hotel boss

David Byrne
David Byrne

Maeve Sheehan and Jim Cusack

Hotelier recounts his horror at the gun attack in broad daylight - and the agonising wait for the gardai

THE Regency Hotel on the Swords Road in Dublin was buzzing on Friday afternoon. The place was heaving with boxing fans and tourists. The weigh-in for the big fight, which was due to take place in the National Stadium, was under way in the Regency Suite function room just off the foyer. It was the Clash of the Clans: Dubliner Jamie Kavanagh versus his Portuguese opponent Antonio Joao Bento.

In the bar, Welsh boxing fans milled around, tourists from Phoenix, Arizona had just ordered a late lunch of sandwiches. James McGettigan, the managing director of the hotel that has been in his family for years, sat at the counter talking about the business with general manager John Glynn.

"We were just having a cup of tea, talking about the business. He was telling me how good some of these boxing people were," said McGettigan. Their chat was interrupted by a commotion outside in the reception area, and when they turned and looked they saw people running from the function room.

McGettigan has seen his share of altercations in his years in the hospitality business, but nothing prepared him for the carnage that unfolded over the next 10 minutes, as a gang of assassins stalked through his popular hotel with military precision hunting out their prey. "It was absolutely shocking - it was like any movie you have seen, but worse," he said.

"Three 'gardai' appeared in the bar and shouted 'everyone lie down on the ground right now. One 'guard' was standing two or three feet from me, and he fired off a couple of shots. He had the gun pointed up towards the ceiling. Everyone lay down except me. I don't know why I didn't. As I was looking at him, I thought to myself this guy is not a guard. First of all he's firing a gun and he looked like he was only 21 years old," said McGettigan.

"It was so surreal. When the bullets went off I thought, this is really, really heavy," he added. McGettigan found out later that the bullet the gunman fired into the ceiling ricocheted across the bar and ended up embedded at the other side of the room.

But as he stood there at that moment, he thought to himself this was a robbery, not thinking then that their mission was to assassinate."Two men hid right behind where I was standing. They hid behind two stools. The gunmen did not appear to see them, and they were very lucky not to be seen," he said.

For seconds that seemed like minutes, he stood there. The gunman looked at him. McGettigan looked right back.

Why did he do that? He said he doesn't really know: "There were a lot of customers in the bar, but I wasn't going to take him on with the gun or anything. This guy was very calm. He did not seem revved up on cocaine or anything. This was a seriously professional operation."

Gunfire in the lobby broke the moment. The gunmen disguised as guards left the bar.

"A couple of seconds later I heard more shots being fired. A man in reception had been shot dead. I saw it," he said, adding: "I thought we were all going to die."

He saw the assassination of the man, later named as David Byrne, a drug dealer from Crumlin and key figure in the Spanish-based Kinahan criminal gang, unfold through a glass window.

The gunman was one of the three "guards". McGettigan saw him firing his weapon at the victim. "He was shot three times, twice in the body and once in the head," he said. "These guys made sure he was killed. There was smoke coming out of his body."

Afterwards, as the gunman fired the first of the three fatal shots, McGettigan watched another man dive over the reception counter to escape. And he watched as the gunman walked calmly to the counter, peered over the top, pointed his weapon into the face of the man, and then walked away.

This was Kevin McAnena, a BBC sports reporter who said afterwards: "I was looking down the barrel of the gun and thought I was going to die. It was utterly terrifying."

In the Regency Suite function room, Mel Christle, a senior counsel who is president of the Boxing Union of Ireland, had been finishing up the weigh-ins for the big match in the National Stadium.

Two hundred people -many of them children and their parents - had packed into the room to watch the last of the fighters, Gary Sweeney, from Mayo, who was being weighed in and was putting on his tracksuit.

"What I witnessed was, after a number of gunshots, a male who was dressed as a woman ran out past me along with another accomplice. Both had hand guns. Then at the back there were two other individuals who apparently - I did not witness this - were dressed apparently as guards, as members of An Garda Siochana. They started shooting as well," he later told RTE. "People were diving for cover."

"This was not indiscriminate," Christle said. "The gunmen knew who they were looking for."

McGettigan, by now, had run out of the bar and was looking for cover, so he could phone for help.

"I ran out towards the exit, and into a small residents' lounge. I saw a girl on the way there and I said to her 'ring the guards immediately'. She said: 'The guards are here already.' That's how much confusion there was."

Inside the residents' lounge, he locked the door, took out his phone and dialled 999, but was either kept on hold or the line was engaged. "I tried three times and eventually I got through," he said.

"I told the man what had happened. He said he would have to put me through to the Dublin division. But that kept ringing and ringing. The man said they'll answer it any second now. Eventually I just hung up. It could have been 25 seconds on the phone but it felt like two minutes."

He rang a detective friend instead: "I told him what was going on in the hotel. He said: 'I'll get someone there immediately'."

McGettigan stayed where he was. Outside gunfire still raged as an unknown number of gunmen prowled calmly through the scores of terrified men, women and children, searching for their targets.

"I stayed in there until I heard sirens coming," he said. "It was very hard to know who was a garda and who wasn't. I did not want to come out of that room unless I knew that there were genuine gardai in the lobby," he said.

Around four minutes after McGettigan's phone call, the fire brigade arrived at the scene, followed by an ambulance. Gardai arrived at 3.40pm.

A second man, who was shot in the stomach, managed to make his way out of the hotel and on to the road outside. He was later picked up by an ambulance. A third man, who is in his 20s, was shot in the leg and is recovering in hospital.

One eyewitness told the Irish Independent yesterday: "Jamie Kavanagh came outside. He stood there frozen. A few minutes later, I started seeing him getting sick. Guards started coming quite slowly. It took them forever. There was innocent people caught up in this madness. Children were crying. The guards came. One man was blocked in by their car and was shouting 'let me f**ing out, let me f**king out'. The gunmen had Dublin accents. It seemed like they knew who they were going for."

Later on Friday evening, going through the CCTV footage with gardai, McGettigan recalled the problems he'd been having with the system just a week earlier. At the time, he didn't attach much significance to it. Somehow the codes to access the CCTV system had been changed. McGettigan had to get professionals in to fix the problem. "The professional said this was the first time he'd seen this happening," he said.

Gardai will now be investigating whether the killers attempted to hack into the hotel's CCTV system to disable it.

A gun attack such as this in a busy Dublin hotel, in front of hundreds of people, in the middle of the afternoon, is simply unprecedented. Dublin detectives said yesterday that the public execution of David Byrne, one of the Irish mob's leading figures in Dublin, was the opening, very brutal act in what could potentially be the worst round of gang violence in the city's history.

Within hours, the dogs in the street seemed to know who the prime suspects were for the carnage, and the bloody back story.

Last September, Gary Hutch (34), a nephew of the 'retired' former northside crime boss, Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch, was gunned down in a residential complex outside Fuengirola. The Kinahan gang apparently suspected him of being a police informer. Hutch, apparently aware his life was in danger, moved between Dublin, Spain and Holland in the two months before his death.

A garda source summed up the fall-out in simple terms: the gang responsible wanted to explain themselves to Hutch's associates. They travelled four or five times from Spain to Ireland in recent months. Hutch's associates refused to meet them.

The Kinahan gang were offended, he said. They shouted and roared, but Hutch's associates did nothing. "Then out of nowhere, this happens," the source said.

This is also about drugs. Sources say there has also been talk of challenging the Marbella mob's supposed complete control of heroin and cocaine supply to Dublin over the past 18 months. One northside gang is known to have formed an alliance with a major Glasgow gang who see themselves as rivals to the Irish mob in Spain.

Dublin detectives said Friday's public execution of David Byrne, one of the Irish mob's leading figures in Dublin, was the opening, very brutal act in what could potentially be the worst round of gang violence in the city's history.

This was no ordinary revenge shooting, said one source. "This was a spectacular retaliation."

At a briefing yesterday, senior garda assistant commissioners said the force had no idea that the attack was being planned. Last night, armed emergency response units patrolled the streets of Crumlin, where Byrne is from, and the north inner city.

At the Regency Hotel, the guests and the staff are trying to return to some sort of normality after the trauma. Detectives are working the crime scene - and almost the entire ground floor is a crime scene. But the guests who were already booked in were allowed remain, along with staff to look after them.

Comedian Brendan Grace was due to perform there last night but the event was cancelled. McGettigan, general manager Glynn and the rest of the staff are all reeling from the shock.

McGettigan is speaking out to highlight the fact that it took so long for emergency services to deal with his call, and for gardai to get there. They arrived just over 10 minutes after the first rounds of gunfire - leaving hundreds of people exposed to unimaginable danger as the killers stalked from room to room seeking out their targets.

"This was an assassination," said McGettigan. "These guys had no issues with shooting anyone. It was a military operation. These guys knew what they were doing. They were very, very calm."

Afterwards, he said, CCTV footage shows the gang members casually leaving the hotel by the front entrance.

Sunday Independent

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