Although brutal terrorist atrocities were commonplace in Northern Ireland by the late 1970s, the utter depravity of the IRA’s fire bomb attack at the La Mon House hotel 40 years ago tomorrow sent shockwaves around the world. MARK RAINEY reports
Even with a well-oiled propaganda machine, there was nothing the Provisional IRA could say that would in any way justify the mass murder of 12 innocent civilians as a strike against the British establishment.
Giving only a nine-minute warning, the bombers attached large incendiary device to a window of the hotel shortly after 8pm on February 17, 1978.
The ensuing fireball – estimated by forensic experts to have been 60ft in diameter – claimed the lives of seven women and five men, including three married couples, with the bodies of many charred beyond recognition.
All had been attending a dinner organised by the Irish Collie Club. All of the victims were Protestant.
Under the headline ‘Innocents die in bomb inferno,’ the News Letter the following morning quoted an eyewitness to the horror who said: “It was a ghastly experience. Within a few minutes the hotel became a ball of fire. We could see people struggling to get out but being forced back by the flames.”
I’ll remember the screams of those people being burned alive by the flames as long as I live
The brother of a waiter who rushed to the scene to search for him, said: “I’ll remember the screams of those people being burned alive by the flames as long as I live.
“I have been in the ambulance service for 14 years but I have never seen anything like it before. And as long as I live I hope I will never see the like again.”
A car hijacked in west Belfast at 6.20pm was used to transport the massive incendiary-type device – containing around four times more petrol than the more traditional fire bombs used to destroy commercial premises – to the La Mon site between Castlereagh and Comber.
Around 8pm, the vehicle arrived at the hotel where the bomb was believed to have been attached to window grills using a meat hook.
The bombers then drove off, abandoning the car on the Lisleen Road at Gransha a short time later.
By the time a warning was telephoned via the 999 operator – stating that three bombs had been left at La Mon with another in the car park – only nine minutes remained before the timer would detonate the device.
The first police officers dispatched to investigate the claim were tasked just three minutes before the catastrophic explosion at 9pm.
The officers arrived on the scene at 9.08pm and were joined by fire and ambulance and service personnel.
At 11.30pm authorities were able to confirm that a total of 12 bodies had been recovered from the Peacock Room of the building and taken to the mortuary.
Fire fighters were reported to have brought the blaze under control by 1.30am.
One badly injured survivor who lost his wife and sister in the blast, Jim Mills, later recalled: “All I remember is everything went dark then it was like a furnace, everything was burning.”
Mr Mills added: “They burnt us alive, yet it’s all forgotten about.”
At the time, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, Rt Rev George Quin, said: “If anyone had any doubt about the evil of these people they should have none now.”
A telegram sent to the Catholic bishop of Down and Connor by the Vatican said the Pope, John Paul I, was shocked by the bombing.
It went on to say: “Deploring the inhuman deed, he has directed me to give assurance of his prayers for the victims and their relatives while he asks God to move hearts so that peace and harmony may be established in your troubled land.”
A number of senior republicans in Belfast were arrested for questioning the day after the attack.
Two days later, the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility.
In a statement, the Provos said they had been “rightly and sincerely” criticised by their own membership for the “bombing operation”.
The statement described the nine-minute warning as “totally inadequate given the disastrous consequences”.
In September 1981, Belfast man Robert Murphy pleaded guilty to 12 counts of manslaughter having denied the mass murder at La Mon.
He was said to have hijacked the car used by the bombers and was sentenced to life but was released from prison in 1995. Murphy died in 2006. Another man was acquitted of the charges.