ALMOST thirty years on from the atrocity which unfolded in Ballykelly as the Droppin Well pub was blown apart by the INLA, a fire-fighter who was at the scene is still trying to find out what happened to a young woman whose life he saved.
BY NIALL DEENEY
Paul O’Kane knows nothing of what became of a young person, whose name he does not even know, whom he and colleagues worked for hours to pull from the rubble of the ruined building in 1982.
Mr O’Kane contacted the Sentinel after reading the story of Steve ‘Taffy’ Horvath, a former army paramedic who had been in the pub when it was bombed. Mr Horvath spoke of how some of his own nightmares from that horrific night were relieved when he learned that a young person whom he had treated on the scene had survived.
A former fire-fighter from Londonderry who was at the scene of both the Droppin Well and the Claudy bombings, Paul O’Kane said that he too has been plagued by nightmares from the massacre in Ballykelly thirty years ago.
The former fire-fighter, who has been awarded an MBE for his charity work, is hoping he can find out what happened to a young woman whom he worked through the night to rescue from the wreckage.
He said: “I don’t know how myself and this other fire fighter got to this other stage but we crawled in under the concrete. Now we were that low down we had to take our helmets off... and we crawled in there - and there was a girl, a casualty. Obviously she was alive and we worked at her with our arms outstretched - out flat on our bellies working with just our hands.”
He added: “What sticks out in my memory was her feet, her shoes were well tangled up in wires, and metal, everything. She was semi-conscious, in and out of consciousness. and I said to somebody, give me my knife out of my back pocket. I said to one of the other fire-fighters, my mate Davey - we’ll cut them off. That shook her up, that got her going. She thought I was going to cut her feet off, because we were working at her feet.
“She had sandles, or slippers on her feet, like going out sandles. There were all these wee leather things, straps. I cut them all off from the wires and we got her out. She was pulled straight out. She was screaming, screaming... that wee girl was in pain. Now, what age she was, I have no idea. It was hard to tell - there was dust, there was rubble, there was blood.
“Her make-up would’ve been all over the place. I don’t know what state her hair was in. The words I said to her when we got her out were; You’re gorgeous looking you know - I had to say something. I don’t know what she said to that. She was dazed.
“To this day, I don’t know her name, where she came from, if she’s alive or dead, or what the story is on her.”
Mr O’Kane is now hoping he can find out some of that information after 30 years of wondering. He is appealing for anyone who might know something about that young girl to contact the Sentinel or Mr O’Kane directly.
He said: “I suppose it’s the unknown. A few people have stopped me in the past. I did a bit of taxiing in my time and people have said to me - you’re name’s Paul O’Kane - you are a fire fighter - you pulled me out of a house! But when they get out of the car, that’s it, it’s done.
“But this particular one, I don’t know. It’s going back thirty years. It’s just a wee wondering. There are a whole lot of things you wonder about. It plays on your mind.
“Maybe it is a wee bit more about self-satisfaction, to see ‘how did she do?’ It’s a thought and I am wondering how is she? I would be sad to find out she was dead and I would be delighted to find out she is alive. It would probably put the Droppin Well, in my mind, to rest.
The Droppin Well bombing
THE Droppin Well bombing took place on December 6, 1982. On that fateful day, 11 soldiers from the nearby Shackleton army base and six civilians were killed as an explosion tore the busy pub apart.
Most of the victims were crushed under the heavy masonry of the pub’s concrete ceiling as it came crashing down on some of the 150 people enjoying an innocent night’s entertainment.
After the blast, emergency services, including fire-fighters such as Paul O’Kane, spent hours working to pull survivors from the rubble, with the last living person not freed until the early hours of the following morning. A total of 17 people died and a further 30 were wounded, some seriously.
The Irish National Liberation Army, the group responsible for what the Catholic Primate of Ireland called “gruesome slaughter”, would later release a statement to justify the massacre: “We believe that it is only attacks of such a nature that brings it home to the people in Britain and the British establishment. The shooting of an individual soldier, for the people of Britain, has very little effect in terms of the media or in terms of the British administration.”
Four INLA members were convicted for their part in the atrocity, all of whom were from Londonderry.
Here, Mr O’Kane describes his memory of the bombing: “I don’t mind a while lot about it - it was a long time ago. There is a specific thing that I do remember, and it was reading your article. It was myself and another fire fighter - we got the call and I went into the side of the building and we went in round the bar - and it was absolutely devastating, terrible.
“If you could imagine a solid block of concrete - just smash, straight down. We went in round the bar, and I don’t really know what happened there. but the bar was all scattered and we ended up in what looked to me like a main hall.
“I don’t know how myself and this other fire fighter got to this other stage but we crawled in under the concrete. Now we were that low down we had to take our helmets off... and we crawled in there - and there was a girl, a casualty. Obviously she was alive and we worked at her with our arms outstretched - out flat on our bellies working with just our hands.
“I think there were other casualties (deceased) there. It was the tables and the chairs that kept the weight off her.
“Now to this day I don’t know but there was two garage trolly jacks had been put underneath the concrete, more or less to take the weight off or to hold it. Did you ever see the big long trolly jacks they have in the garage to jack up the car with, two of them.
I thought about it, if that weight had’ve came down, those trolly jacks wouldn’t have stopped that.
We were working away and it was a young, black doctor came in. He asked if this was a safe bit and I said, no, it’s not. What he wanted to give her was a short shot of morphine. What sticks out in my memory was her feet, her shoes were well tangled up in wires, and metal, everything. She was semi-conscious, in and out of consciousness. and I said to somebody, give me my knife out of my back pocket. It’s a buck knife, about six inches. If I was out on the street with it now the police would probably arrest me, but to me it’s a tool.
Somebody slipped the knife in to me. I said to one of the other fire-fighters, my mate Davey - we’ll cut them off. That shook her up, that got her going. She thought I was going to cut her feet off, because we were working at her feet.
She had sandles, or slippers on her feet, like going out sandles. There were all these wee leather things, straps. I cut them all off from the wires and we got her out. She was pulled straight out. She was screaming, screaming... that wee girl was in pain. Now, what age she was, I have no idea. It is hard to tell - there was dust, there was rubble, there was blood.
Her make-up would’ve been all over the place. I don’t know what state her hair was in. The words I said to her when we got her out were; You’re gorgeous looking you know - I had to say something. I don’t know what she said to that. She was dazed.
“To this day, I don’t know her name, where she came from, if she’s alive or dead, or what the story is on her. I heard the name George, the surname. I was talking to the Reverend from Ballykelly and he said he hadn’t heard the name George. She could’ve been from Greysteel, Ballykelly, she could’ve been a soldiers girlfriend, maybe a wife - I don’t know. She might have been from Limavady. Her name might not even have been George, her surname.
“It was, it really was a terrible atrocity. When we arrived I think the Limavady brigade were there, and we got a shout from the Northland Road in Derry.
Our first machine went down, and as the night went on, you know, I think the fire brigade more or less took over because it was just absolute... it was chaos.
“But there was, if you see clippings of the Droppin Well at the front of the building, there was actually a man trapped underneath that concrete as well... and his legs... he was there for hours.
It was a bitter, cold night. They eventually got him out. I think they were going to go in underneath and take the legs off him. But, they got him out.
“That memory on the TV, and the memory of me and the other bloke being stretched out underneath the concrete - how I got to that situation, I don’t know. “But that, finding out, that’s what I am wondering about. Even if I got a phone-call saying ‘I’m grand and I’m well’ - that’s it. I just want to know.”
Mr O’Kane decided to launch his appeal for help trying to discover the fate of the young woman whom he and colleagues pulled from the rubble that night after reading the story in the Sentinel of Steve ‘Taffy’ Horvath.
Mr Horvath, a former army paramedic who has been so traumatised by his experience of the Droppin Well bombing he “ended up in a mental hosptial” in Norfolk. He now lives in sheltered accomodation in his native Wales and has recently undertaken a sponsored walk to raise money for Combat Stress, a charity who has helped him deal with his diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. ‘Taffy’ told the Sentinel how at least some of his nightmares were “laid to rest” after 25 years when he discovered that a young woman whom he worked with had survived her injuries.
Now, Paul O’Kane is seeking the same kind of closure. He said: “After reading your article it resurrected my wee silent nightmare. That man ‘Taffy’ that you were talking to, he spoke to people and through word of mouth in the area - he found out - he was satisfied after that.
“I asked a few people, and they say go and ask the police about it, but they are all young fella’s. Somebody said to me, go and see the regiment in Ballykelly - it’s now Craig’s Supermarket.
It has to have been documented - somebody was injured like this, somebody was that.
“It might even have been that wee girl your man Taffy was talking about. I don’t know at what stage he got her. He might have got her after the extraction. Even if I heard that it was her - that’s it. I don’t even need to see her. It would be enough just to know.”
FORMER fire-fighter Paul O’Kane, from Londonderry, was also at the scene of the Claudy bombing in 1972.
On July 31, 1972 three car bombs exploded in the middle of the morning on the busy Main Street in the County Londonderry town. The bombing killed nine innocent civilians.
Here, Paul O’Kane MBE talks about his memories of that morning. He said: “The other one was the Claudy one. I was working at Claudy because I lived out there, I keep thinking of that when it comes up – a man died and I knew him well.
“It’s a man I worked on, it’s well documented. I was working there, well I wasn’t working, I was lying sleeping and I heard the bomb when I was lying sleeping in my bed in Claudy.
“Claudy was different. Just before ten in the morning I heard the explosion. I knew with hearing explosions in the town, you ears get to know – this one’s near. It’s too near.
“I got up out of my bed and headed up the main street, passing a car at the hotel that nobody knew about. The street was wrecked. A wee small street and it was just wrecked. The dust had still been settling. It was three bombs. The first went off on the main street and there was a fire at the bar, apparently missus.
“There was a woman who had been set on fire. Somebody had put her out. I knew it was her because of these distinctive pair of shoes. Dr. Scholl. So I knew it was her.
“I seen a man then lying on the footpath, so I went down and worked with him, and he just was....
His head, he had terrible injuries to his head. I went down and worked with him and the police man, he argued with me. He said; ‘Paul – there’s another bomb down there!’ They got word, they knew about this bomb at the post office.
“Which was near the corner of the street. I looked at it, and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll take my chances. I stayed with Artie. He died four or five days afterwards in hospital.
“There was a terrible silence then, in my mind. There was nobody in the street. I can still see it, in my mind. When I am lying in my bed, I can see that street. I can see me with Artie, and quietness. Now and again, I think, I ‘ll probably not sleep tonight.
“There was an almighty bang. The slates on the street on the wee house and the shop came over around me. The dust. I was cut. I have a wound on my side. I was well busted up my side.
I was badly injured because down with him on me knees.
“Around 50 yards down the street I seen a Morris Minor. I seen it and I said, there’s a car between that and me. I was working with Artie and this almighty bang. I got down, and when I looked up all the slates were coming at me. For that split second I looked, and that car was still there. That was a bomb that went off at the hotel that nobody knew about. That was the second one.
“This thing went off and I did feel everything. I was whacked, really whacked. Artie got a cut, on his forehead. It was all dusted, dusty and all.
“Well, if the truth be told, every car on that day, to me had a bomb in it. The next thing I remember is being in waking up with the other firemen, wrapped up in bandages. I was wrapped up like a mummy with the bandages. I didn’t know how I got in to the hospital. I do know now how I got into the hospital. I was in there for 13 weeks or so, with severe lacerations.
“I’ve been told by the police that I got from Claudy to Altnagelvin in one of Desmond’s Factory’s buses. I was taken in that, but I don’t remember it. I made a statement, a girl showed it to me, I don’t remember making it. There are blanks. Just shock to be honest.
“I was lying in hospital, it was like something you would see in a war film. People lying all over the place. There was a man in the hospital wandering around and he said to me; do you think you’ll have to lose the leg? That’s the only time I panicked. I hadn’t thought of that – you get on with it.
There was no blood, very little blood. Just wide open.
“There was a doctor who came in and prioritised the patients, I knew I was staying in the hospital then because he told me; you’re staying, I need to look at that.
“I think they took shrapnel out of it and stitched it all up. There were minor cuts and things too. There are wrinkles on my forehead but that was fifteen stitches in along there, and a couple of cuts on my hands, but, I came out of it all right.
“I spoke to Artie’s wife, Anne Hone. I wasn’t at his funeral. I couldn’t move. I was a cripple.
People sometimes ask me, how can you talk about it – I can’t talk about it. I can. My head is above the ground.”
For Mr O’Kane, a man who has witnessed many terrible sights during his time as a fire-fighter, it is the bombing of the Droppin Well pub in Ballykelly almost ten years after Claudy which is the most difficult to deal with.
He said: “I can talk about Claudy, but it is the Droppin Well one I find most difficult, and I still wonder how that wee girl got on. I don’t know how I got to where I was. Because the bloke that I went in to the building with wasn’t the bloke that I was underneath with. It was organised chaos.
“The idea was – get people out. We got her out. I heard somebody saying it must have been a couple of hours. It was just sheer luck, moving stuff, hauling it. Jigging her around to get enough space to work. She was moaning and groaning. It wasn’t a loud moan – it was a quiet moan. When I was at her feet, I said to Davey I’m going to cut these off. She thought I was going to cut her feet off. I meant her shoes. She was squealing.”
Paul O’Kane MBE is appealing for anyone who might have any information about the fate of the young woman he helped rescue from the debris of the ruined Droppin Well pub in Ballykelly in 1982 to contact the Sentinel or Mr O’Kane.
If you have any information which might help Mr O’Kane discover what happened to the young woman, call the Sentinel on 02871341175 or email email@example.com.
To contact Paul O’Kane directly, email firstname.lastname@example.org