Wednesday 11 December 2019

Survivors of the La Mon bombing on the memories that haunt them and their quest for justice

Today marks four decades since a bomb at the hotel in the Castlereagh hills above Belfast killed 12 and injured 23, many of them grievously so. Ahead of what will be the last ever memorial service, Jim Mills, who lost his wife and sister in the blast, and Billy McDowell, whose late wife Lily was critically injured, talk to Ivan Little.

Billy McDowell (left) and Jim Mills who lost his wife Carol
Billy McDowell (left) and Jim Mills who lost his wife Carol

Forty years on from that blink-of-an-eye moment of barbarity at La Mon, the pain is still patently raw as Jim Mills and Billy McDowell sit together sharing their memories of one of the IRA's most notoriously horrific bombings which tore their worlds asunder.

Jim's wife Carol and sister Sandra Morris were among the 12 guests at a dog club awards dinner who perished in the attack on the hotel.

Two of the other victims, Tommy Neeson and Sally Cooper, had also been at Jim's table which was only feet from where the bomb went off creating a huge fireball.

Jim survived but he was one of the two most seriously injured of the 23 casualties.

Billy McDowell's wife Lily was the other most critically injured survivor and she later spoke movingly about how she fell to the floor in the inferno and prayed as she prepared to die.

Not surprisingly Billy and Jim - who had been complete strangers before La Mon - have forged a close bond, wrought from the most shocking of adversities.

This week they met me in Billy's Co Down home to talk about the tragedy that thousands of people here can't forget, especially because of the distressing picture of a charred body the RUC used in a poster appealing for information.

Identifying the victims, unsurprisingly, proved difficult.

At one point during this week's get-together Billy - who was also hurt - and Jim marvelled at a photograph of their younger selves in ward 16 at the Ulster Hospital, a picture that crystallised the reality that 40 years really have gone by.

Their smiles from four decades ago couldn't mask their heartache in the immediate aftermath of La Mon, a name etched for ever in the lexicon of Ulster terror.

For Billy and Jim the nightmare of that fateful Friday night, February 17, 1978, has never gone away.

Neither has the mens' sense of injustice that no one was ever convicted of the atrocity that the IRA unleashed with an even more fiercesome bomb than usual at the hotel in the Castlereagh hills above Belfast.

The massive incendiary-type device, which had four times the amount of petrol than normal bombs, was left outside a hotel window in a leather holdall.

It's believed that the timing unit was set for up to 58 minutes after the bomb was placed.

However, the Provos gave a nine-minute warning which even they later admitted was too little too late.

Neither Jim nor Billy heard a blast.

Jim says: "I was only aware of a flash and it all went dark and then the fireball was everywhere and the fumes were choking us. I couldn't see where my wife or sister were."

Jim gave up any hope of escaping. He says that his last thoughts were for his mother and how she would cope without so many members of her family.

"Just at that my brother-in-law and another man kicked a door open and I could see a bit of light," he says.

"After we got out we tried to get back in but it was impossible. The place was like a furnace."

Scientists re-created the explosion and estimated that the bomb produced a fireball of around 60 feet in diameter and 40 feet in height, comparable to the effects of a napalm blast.

Jim is still haunted by the final words he uttered to Carol at La Mon that night. "She was really fond of salt on her food. I told her that all that salt was going to kill her. Little did I know that she could have taken all the salt she wanted that night," says Jim, who was told by a senior hospital administrator that his wife and sister hadn't made it out.

He adds: "I knew in my heart that they were dead. Later, they turned off all the TVs so I wouldn't see the funerals.

"I was obviously unable to go because I was so badly burnt. At times they thought I wouldn't make it."

Billy recalls that in the darkness and pandemonium at La Mon it was hard to know which way to turn with his fleeing wife Lily who was holding on to the back of his jacket.

But Billy instinctively took his coat off to put it over a girl whose hair was on fire. In that instant Lily was gone.

In an interview for a UTV documentary 30 years ago Lily told me about seeing a huge orange ball of flames engulfing the Peacock Room.

She said: "I crept away from the tables and just didn't know where to go. I knew I was going to die. I suddenly knew I only had seconds. I sat up on my knees and tried to quickly - as quickly as I could - say my prayers.

"And as I did so, I know now I felt the presence of the Lord speaking to me. I was just so still. I was able to sit up and put my hands together and I was able to say the Lord's Prayer from beginning to end without faltering at all.

"And after that, I just fell forward on my face and I asked the Lord that if it was in his will that he would take me home because I was so suffering so much.

"I asked him to get Billy out to look after my boys, my two boys."

But miraculously help was at hand. A man called Joe Paxton dragged Lily to safety.

She had third degree burns to 50pc of her body, particularly from the neck down.

Joe Paxton died on Boxing Day last year but it's hoped members of his family will be at tomorrow's memorial service at the headquarters of Lisburn and Castlereagh council (LACC) on the 40th anniversary of La Mon.

Many other relatives and victims have died in recent years.

Lily McDowell passed away at the age of 72 in 2013 just two weeks after meeting the then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to press for a review of the investigation into the bombing.

Mrs Villiers subsequently said no to a public inquiry and Billy says he fears he will go to his grave without seeing justice for the La Mon families.

Two men were charged with offences linked to the attack. Robert Murphy who hijacked the bombers' car served 15 years for manslaughter.

Edward Manning Brophy was accused of murder but he was acquitted after his written and verbal confessions were ruled inadmissible.

Relatives are convinced many top IRA men got away with murder. Gerry Adams (below) was one of 25 republicans who were questioned.

Eight days after La Mon Adams was charged with IRA membership though he was later freed after a judge said there was insufficient evidence.

In 2003 the former DUP MP Iris Robinson used parliamentary privilege to say that Adams was involved in La Mon.

She said: "The police are certain that this attack was sanctioned and approved by Gerald Adams who was then in command of those who are known to have carried it out."

Adams, who last week stepped aside as Sinn Fein president, denied the claim.

Billy McDowell says he regrets that "some of the recent Sinn Fein resignations" didn't come more than 40 years ago.

"If they had resigned then there mightn't have been so many innocent people killed or injured," he adds.

Jim and representatives of all 12 La Mon victims will lay wreaths today at what will be the last ever memorial service.

Billy says he's thankful that the LACC are organising the service and rededicating stained glass windows which have been moved to Lisburn from the old council offices at Castlereagh.

Relationships with some councillors in Castlereagh in the past were infamously fraught.

But Jim and Billy feel they and the rest of the victims of the Troubles have been forgotten by the majority of politicians.

They were furious at Sinn Fein being allowed into government and they say the plight of victims appears to have been low down in the priorities of the parties searching for a new Stormont deal.

"They've been talking about everything from gay rights to an Irish Language Act, but I haven't heard any mention of victims," says Jim.

The lack of a public inquiry into La Mon also still rankles with the families as does the "whitewash" of a HET inquiry, though investigators established that important documents relating to the original RUC probe were missing, including interviews with IRA suspects.

A number of families have claimed that the disappearance of the files was designed to protect IRA members involved in the peace process.

One report said double agent Denis Donaldson, who was murdered by republicans in Donegal, was one of the La Mon bomb team.

The Ulster Human Rights Watch organisation (UHRW), which includes La Mon relatives, formally lodged a public complaint about the RUC investigation with Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire.

"We've been told that La Mon is at the top of the ombudsman's list. There are 400 cases with him but a lack of resources is delaying things," says Bertie Campbell of UHRW.

That investigation could take years according to Jim, who physically has recovered well from his injuries but says he is still "churned up inside".

He still experiences survivor guilt because Carol and Sandra were killed.

"You feel as if it's a man's job to die," says Jim who'd never heard of La Mon before he went to the collie club dinner.

It was his one and only trip there. "I could never go back. Never," he says.

Billy, who visits Lily's grave every day, says he was astonished by her courage adding: "She was a great wee soldier.

"I couldn't have coped the way she did. It broke my heart to see her in hospital afterwards."

Jim and Lily needed extensive skin grafts for a long time after La Mon. And one operation brings a rare moment of levity for Jim as he points out a birthmark on his thumb.

"That used to be on my ankle before the surgery," he laughs.

Belfast Telegraph

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