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Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 06:04 GMT 07:04 UK
Search for answers over Omagh bomb
Omagh bombing scene
Twenty-nine people died in the explosion
By BBC Northern Ireland's Chris Capper

The inquest has opened into the deaths of the 29 victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing carried out by dissident republicans.

The minor hall in Omagh Leisure Centre has been transformed into a coroner's court.

Coroners court
The leisure centre - now the coroners court - was where many first heard their relatives were dead
It was used as an incident centre shortly after the Real IRA bomb exploded in the centre of the busy County Tyrone town killing and injuring more than 200 people on 15 August, 1998.

After the explosion, families waited in the centre for hours trying to get information on the whereabouts of friends and relatives. For many it was where they first heard that their loved ones were dead.

For the next three weeks relatives of the victims, eyewitnesses, members of the emergency services, police detectives and others will give evidence as coroner John Leckey establishes what facts he can about what happened.

More than 150 witness statements have already been taken.

Some of the families will be represented by lawyers at the inquest including the leading QC, Michael Mansfield. Others will represent themselves.

Families divided

Unlike inquests in England and Wales, coroner's courts in Northern Ireland do not reach verdicts apportioning blame, but instead make "findings", confined solely to the facts surrounding violent, sudden or unexplained death.

Rev Robert Herron
Rev Robert Herron: "Families want to find out the truth"
For that reason, the victims' families are divided about the effectiveness of the inquest.

Presbyterian minister Robert Herron, who has ministered to many of those affected by the bombing, said that at least one family has chosen to leave Omagh for the duration of the inquest.

Others believe it is a poor substitute for a trial of the bombers.

But Mr Herron said: "The vast majority of the families will come along and see that the inquest is for them to find out more of the truth."

There are divisions within the group of families of the victims.

The first ruling Mr Leckey will make is on a request to postpone the proceedings.

Michael Gallagher
Michael Gallagher wants more time for families to study evidence
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was killed in the explosion, has asked for the relatives to be given more time to study witness statements.

He is among some relatives who have called for the only man charged in connection with the bombing in the Republic of Ireland and the chairman of the hardline republican 32 County Sovereignty Committee to be called as witnesses.

This group has been linked to, but has denied a connection with, the Real IRA.

But other relatives, including the Gibson family, are vehemently opposed to the idea of them attending the inquest.


The fact that you have to go and stand there knowing that they're still walking free - that's the hardest bit of all

Caroline Gibson
Caroline Gibson's sister Esther was 36 and engaged to be married when she was killed in the explosion.

Her sister said the family want to know where Esther was when the bomb went off so they can place flowers at the precise location.

She said they are also prepared to hear the details of the cause of her death.

"I don't feel it's going to be an awful shock, because every day for the past two years it's just been that all the time, from morning to night," she said.

Caroline Gibson
Caroline Gibson fears her sister will be forgotten after inquest
"Mum and Dad would feel happier to know themselves the actual cause and things like that. But we are really dreading the day."

Caroline Gibson said she would rather hear those details at a trial of the bombers.

"The government and everyone else were all for the inquest. But they are not getting to the point as to why the inquest is there," she said.

"If they had got these people, and done what they had to do, the inquest would be no problem for the families.

"The fact that you have to go and stand there knowing that they're still walking free - that's the hardest bit of all."

Ms Gibson says she will be relieved when the inquest is over, but she also believes it will close an official chapter and ease the pressure to bring those responsible for the bombing to justice.

It is her fear that once the inquest is complete, her sister Esther's murder - and those of 28 - will become just a moment in history.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray
"There's no doubt that this is a difficult time for the families"
Willie Thompson Unionist MP
"The police have done their best"
Michael Gallagher, relative of Omagh victim
"We will learn a lot of what happened"
Click here for the full special report

Ombudsman report

Bomb trial verdict

Archive - the blast:

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