IT WAS the horror 25 years ago which was the catalyst for a series of tragedies that brought the peace process back from the knife edge. Bimpe Archer hears how, even in the darkest days after the Shankill Bomb, compassion flowed across the sectarian divide.
“WE BELIEVE it was the beginning of the end of what was called the Troubles – the madness had stooped so low it couldn’t get any lower.”
On Tuesday it will have been 25 years since Charlie Butler and his neighbours dug the dead and injured out of the rubble of what had, until moments before, been Frizzell’s fish shop on west Belfast’s Shankill Road.
He did not know then that the little broken body in the cerise pink coat lying lifeless and face down amid the carnage was that of his seven-year-old grand-niece Michelle Baird.
“I had given [my relatives] assurances that if my own family would have been there I would have known,” he said.
Nine shoppers were murdered in the IRA attack which also killed bomber Thomas Begley. Begley and Sean Kelly had entered the shop disguised as delivery men to plant the device.
October 23 1993 had been a beautiful, bright autumn day and the road was bustling with its usual Saturday trade. Michelle Baird would usually have been watching her father, Michael Morrison (27), play football with his Saturday team – she never missed a match – but his father had died two days earlier and, along with her mother Evelyn Baird (27), they had gone down the road to order a wreath for his funeral. The blast killed all three.
Charlie Butler and his wife Linda were unaware of the family’s plans as they drove from their Forthriver Road home to the Shankill, passing the staunchly republican Ardoyne area as they went.
“We could have passed the bombers at the roundabout,” he said.
It is a thought that has haunted him for a quarter of a century. Both Begley and Kelly hailed from Ardoyne.
“We might have been that close.”
The taxi company owner found out about the blast as he drove, when another driver, parked near Frizzell’s, came through on the radio. By the time they arrived, minutes later, it was chaos.
“I saw a woman lying in the middle of the road and ran over. It was really, really horrific. Her head and body injuries were terrible,” Mr Butler said.
“Dust was swirling around everywhere. It was hard to see and I looked over to Frizzell’s and all I saw was a gap. There was a roof but nothing below.”
The rescue attempt began immediately. Shoppers and shopkeepers, police and paramedics, passing motorists, everyone began desperately to search for survivors.
“I dug the body of little Leanne Murray out. Something like that lives with you. It doesn’t go away,” Mr Butler said.
The 13-year-old Girls Model pupil, who had lost her father to a stroke eight months earlier, had gone into Frizzell’s to buy a tub of whelks while her mother Gina was in the shop next door.
She died along with John Frizzell (63), who had been selling fish at the popular shop since 1966, and his daughter Sharon McBride (29) who was helping him that day.
Also killed were husband and wife George (63) and Gillian Williamson (49), who had been shopping for curtains for their new house.
Wilma McKee (38), a mother-of-two from Westway Gardens, was pulled alive from the rubble but succumbed to her injuries the next day.
While Begley died in the blast, the second bomber was still alive and gravely injured.
“Sean Kelly owes his life to the people of the Shankill,” Mr Butler said bitterly.
“Sean Kelly was put into an ambulance with another man, Walter Harrison, and Walter says to the paramedic attending: ‘Look at that wee lad. Leave me alone and help that wee lad.’
“In the ambulance, although Kelly was very injured, he still had the sense enough that he was trying to peel the rubber gloves off his hands.
“Walter has never forgiven himself for that.”
By the time Chris McGimpsey, then a UUP councillor for the area, arrived back from a funeral, 45 minutes after the blast, all the survivors were out of the rubble.
“I would have been on the road that day. I was in Frizzell’s fish shop the week before. There are thousands of people that might have been there, that had been there at that time on another Saturday,” he said.
Mr McGimpsey dismisses claims that, had the bomb not detonated prematurely there would have been no innocents killed, that the target was the local UDA leadership who had made its headquarters in offices upstairs and the shop would have been evacuated in time.
“The IRA decided to plant a bomb on the busiest part of the road on the busiest day of the week,” he said.
“They knew that. There would not have been enough time for people to get out.”
Mr Butler said he will never understand how the bombers did what they did.
“What made it awful hard for people was [while] there were other bombs left in places or thrown into places, the people who did this had to walk through crowds of women and children,” he said.
“I don’t care how stupid they are. They must have realised ‘I’m walking through woman and kids here’. How could a human being do that?”
Exhausted and traumatised by his part in the rescue effort, “covered head to foot in deep, deep white dust”, he went home to have a hot bath.
“My wife came in and said; ‘Charlie, you may come in here, Evelyn and Michael haven’t returned home yet, your sister is here,’ he said.
“I turned round and said: ‘Tell her not to worry, they’ll be away into the town having something to eat and not even know what happened’.
“When I came down the family had gathered and we were ringing round the hospitals and sending people round the different hospitals.
“Then a detective came round and said they had some bodies that weren’t identified, was there any distinguishing about them, tattoos or piercings.
“Someone said: ‘Michelle had a pinkish, cerise coloured coat.’ Immediately a hammer hit me. I said: ‘Joe, they’re all dead. Joe, Joe, they’re away.
“I saw someone lying face down and she had a cerise-coloured coat. If that’s Michelle, her mummy and daddy’s dead too, because they never left each other.”
Joe Baird, Evelyn’s brother, went to the morgue with his father and uncle Jim McKay. It was Jim who told the others to wait while he went in to identify them.
“Even to this day I know what he did was a lot harder than what I did. I still feel for him, even after 25 years. I know what I’m living with. I know what he’s living with,” Mr Butler said.
Evelyn and Michael were survived by six-week-old baby Lauren – who is now a mother herself – and nine-year-old Darren. The children were brought by their mother’s parents.
In the immediate aftermath a friend of Mr Butler’s from west Belfast arrived at the door.
“He was one of the first people up in my house. The police brought him up. I live in a staunch loyalist area and they stopped his car because they knew he was from Andersonstown,” he said.
“We’ve lost touch over the years, but he called me there and said ‘After 25 years I haven’t forgotten about you.’ Those things keep you going.”
The UDA retaliation for the bombing saw a wave of violence, including, three days later, a gun attack on a council cleansing depot in Kennedy Way during which James Cameron and Mark Rodgers were murdered.
Mr McGimpsey said other unionist councillors warned him not to attend the men’s funeral.
“I was told I would be ripped apart when I got back to the Shankill. I got nothing but people coming up and shaking hands and saying ‘Well done, I’m glad you represented us,” he said.
Mr Butler later met Mark Rodgers’s son.
“I said: ‘Mark, they didn’t take your daddy’s life in my name or our name. We didn’t want that. We wanted the Shankill to be the last and we asked for it to be the last,” he said.
“We all know it’s the innocents that suffer. We bleed the same and we grieve the same.”
This article first appeared in the Irish News