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'A cruel tragedy befell us': A year on, Creeslough remembers its '10 beautiful souls'

As James O’Flaherty walked through the doorway of the supermarket at the Applegreen filling station in Creeslough last October 7, he would have been hit by the glare of bright sunlight.

Just a few feet in front of him, as he stepped onto the forecourt, was his 12-year-old son sitting in the back of his dark grey Volvo.

James had earlier collected Hamish from school and the two of them were on their way for a walk in Duntally Wood.

All of a sudden, there was a massive explosion above the supermarket, the force of the blast sending metal and concrete shooting in all directions.

Glass splinters shot over Hamish’s back from the shattered windscreen of his father’s car, as choking dust and soot filled the air around him.

There were buckled cars on either side, warzone-like debris, and damage all around.

Dust-covered people were stumbling around dazed and confused, some falling, others standing stuck in shock in the eerie silence that followed moments later.

Local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy, who gave last rites to those who died and anointed the injured on the day, became one of the more familiar faces of the tragedy. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy, who gave last rites to those who died and anointed the injured on the day, became one of the more familiar faces of the tragedy. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Sadly, James O'Flaherty was nowhere to be seen.

Another nine people had died or were dying around him.

They included 24-year-old fashion designer Jessica Gallagher, whose boyfriend Conor McFadden survived despite being blown out of the first-floor flat he was renting above the shop.

One man, who was 20ft from the doors of the supermarket, would later tell how he could hear the sound of people crying under the rubble.

High-altitude mountaineer Jason Black, who has climbed Everest, called out to those crying and urged them to hold on for the emergency services.

One of those people was his cousin, Martina Martin.

The 49-year-old mother-of-four had been working in the shop.

Others included Leona Harper, the 14-year-old who was choosing an ice cream with a friend she was due to have a sleepover with.

She would be the last victim to be recovered from the site, a full 24 hours after the blast.

A digger driver helping at the scene had refused to leave until he was able to locate her body.

As the devastation continued to unfold, a little girl would be found in the arms of her 50-year-old father.

Five-year-old Shauna Flanagan Garwe had gone to the shop to buy a cake for her mother’s birthday.

She had started at Scoil Mhuire Creeslough just a few weeks before she died.

Hughie Kelly, who had driven the pair of them to the filling station, was also among those who died in the blast.

Catherine O’Donnell and her 13-year-old son James Monoghan were in the post office when they were struck by the blast.

The 36-year-old was there to collect her mother’s pension while 49-year-old Martin McGill, who was his mother's sole carer, was on one of his usual daily trips to the shop.

Days later, before the end of Fr Brian Ó Fearraigh’s funeral service at St Mary’s Church in Derrybeg, Hamish O’Flaherty paid tribute to his deceased father James, saying: “Be grateful for your families, cherish them because they won't be there forever, so use up the time you have wisely.

“Also be grateful for your life because that too will not last forever.” 

A year later

Nearly a year on, the families are understandably still very affected by the loss of their loved ones as life in the village has returned to a new form of normality.

The stark reminder of the tragedy in Creeslough. Picture: NW Newspix
The stark reminder of the tragedy in Creeslough. Picture: NW Newspix

The service station has not been replaced, and the main village shop is still a temporary building in the church car park.

But, as one of the locals said: “If it wasn’t for the big hoarding surrounding the explosion site, you wouldn’t know anything had happened. I suppose people have no choice but to get back to normal as best as they can.

“Although I’ve gone back to normal, I do still miss faces in the village.

“You’d be driving along the main street and it’s not hard to notice certain characters are no longer hailing you from their car or stopping for a chat.

“Martin [McGill] was one of those.

“You could not help but notice him missing because he was very much the fabric of everyday life in the village.

“He would be up and down to the filling station sometimes as much as five times in a day doing messages for his mother or other people.

“You’d wave at him and he’d wave at you and sometimes he’d pull over and stop for a chat.” 

Local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy, who gave last rites to those who died and anointed the injured on the day, became one of the more familiar faces of the tragedy.

As well as doing most of the eulogies at the eight funerals he officiated at, he also acted as something of a spokesperson for the community.

Like a number of other people affected by the explosion, he had taken part in the controversial TG4 documentary into the explosion but has said very little in public about Creeslough since.

One of the few times he has spoken about the explosion in public was when he was chief celebrant of the Novena Mass on the opening day of the 2023 Novena in Knock, Co Mayo, last month.

He recalled that what he witnessed on the day of the explosion “did not seem real” but added that “sadly it was something that was very real”.

'You couldn’t even hear birdsong'

Fr John Joe recalled: “You couldn’t even hear birdsong.

“The only thing you could hear was the occasional rattle of machinery, falling debris, or people saying ‘stand back’.

It was something that one would never want to witness or feel it was something one should never witness.

“I see the daily image of that scene now often through my mind.” 

As to the families themselves, it would appear, for now at least, most of them do not want to say anything.

A meeting was held recently among those families, and it was decided a statement would be issued on their behalf.

It has been stated that the first anniversary of the explosion will be marked by a 20-minute memorial service and commemoration at the scene of the tragedy followed by a private mass at St Michael’s Church, where so many of the victims’ funerals were held.

Only those who lost loved ones, emergency workers, and members of the communities affected by the tragedy and the loss of loved ones are involved.

The media have, according to a statement released by parish priest Fr John Joe, been asked to stay away from the Mass.

Gardaí completed forensic examinations at the scene of the explosion last November.

At the time, gardaí referred to the nature of their approach as “a careful and systematic” due to the structural instability of the building.

500 lines of inquiry

Up until the end of October last year, gardaí said they had looked into more than 500 lines of inquiry and taken 260 statements, some of which were from the extensive door-to-door inquiries they conducted after the explosion.

They had also removed almost all of the debris from the filling station and the adjacent flats to a secret location for further analysis.

Since then, it has emerged the investigation has focused on — among other things — the heating system in the block of flats because a number of the injured have told detectives they smelled gas in and around the flats and service station.

A memorandum of understanding was agreed upon and signed by An Garda Síochána, the Health and Safety Authority, and the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities to facilitate the sharing of information and resources between the agencies.

Neither the HSA nor the CRU were able to comment on the current status of the investigation, saying instead all inquiries have to go through gardaí.

Remembrance garden

As far as a memorial is concerned, many of those the Irish Examiner spoke to this week said it was too early but said there are plans for a remembrance garden in the village for the 10 people who died.

The garden is part of a raft of projects — including a community centre and a running track — being steered through by Donegal County Council, which has embarked on a regeneration plan for the village.

As Omagh will forever be associated with the 1998 bomb, so too will Creeslough be associated with the explosion at the Applegreen garage.

But if the words of Fr John Joe Duffy in Knock are anything to go by, it is an association the people in the village are going to live with and carry on.

As Fr John Joe told the pilgrims at knock last month: “The accident robbed us of 10 beautiful souls.

“The community was devastated by the loss and many people were traumatised.

We were in a tsunami of suffering but there came a tidal wave of support.” 

But he added: “For many people, our church was the guiding light through the darkest days of the tragedy.

“A cruel tragedy befell us and we have survived and continue to survive.”