Creeslough waits today; quiet, calm, broken, brave.
In the year since tragedy struck at the heart of the village, the community has walked together towards October 7 in dignity and dread.
Twelve months ago at 3.17pm an explosion destroyed their Applegreen service station and caused much of the adjacent apartment block to collapse.
Read more: Garda investigation update into Creeslough investigation
Read more: Remembering the 10 people who died at Creeslough, aged 5 to 59
Ten people, including three children aged five to 14, who were in the complex at the time, died.
Today as Creeslough gathers to mark the moment their world changed forever, the community is still waiting for the conclusion of 900 Garda interviews and 1,350 lines of enquiry. They wait too for some peace and for the strength to remember the smile at the door they know will never come again.
Yet somehow in the depths of their sorrow, they have found the courage to reach out to others to offer comfort. For today not only will they support each other, but they will gently hold amongst them many of the strangers who rushed to Co Donegal in a bid to save lives.
They will thank and comfort doctors, nurses and paramedics who tried but could do no more; they will share silent handshakes with fire officers, gards and emergency responders.
They will pet the search dogs and offer words of gratitude to the handlers for the incredible work which helped bring their loved ones back to them. The grieving of Creeslough will hold up those who held them together in their hardest hours.
Micheál Sheridan, is Chief Executive of CRITICAL Emergency Medical Response, a charity which equips volunteer responders to provide pre-hospital emergency care to critically injured patients in local communities.
He says the invitation to Creeslough this weekend has been a humbling validation of their role, and he described their acceptance of the gratitude as important as the help the CRITICAL volunteers took to the village in 2022.
The charity has been named as a recipient of potential donations from a song recorded to raise funds for three charities whose volunteers helped locate, recover, assess and treat the victims of the blast.
Stolen Dreams was inspired by Leona Harper, 14, who was the last victim to be brought out of the rubble after indications by search dogs led emergency services to her.
The song was composed by Donegal-based musician Matt McGranaghan who was asked to write it by Anne Nicholls, the mother of a friend of Leona.
And now the Harper family are sharing it on social media to help raise funds which will go directly to the charities.
Musician Matt said: “I learned about Leona from her parents Donna and Hugh. She was an amazing young lady, brave, talented, artistic, conscientious and full of empathy.
Click to play Tap to play
“She had many interests from art to music, to cars, engines, fishing, rugby and sport. She lived a full life. She looked out for her friends and others. She was caring and thoughtful. I left their home inspired by this young, beautiful and incredible person.
“Four lines from the song were taken from a painting Leona and Donna had bought before Christmas 2021. It read, ‘Though my soul has set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light. I have loved the stars too fondly, to be fearful of the night.’
“The lines are from the poem “The Old Astronomer” by poet Sarah Williams. We recorded it and I gave the song to Leona’s parents who wanted to share it to raise donations in Leona’s name.”
Funds raised from the song will be split between three charities, CRITICAL, The Search and Rescue Dogs Association -Ireland North, and K9 Search and Rescue NI, which each had volunteers working at the blast site last year.
CRITICAL’s CEO, Micheál Sheridan said: “We’re very grateful for any donations. All of our work is funded by public donations so every penny helps. Our Donegal based Emergency Medical Responder Dr Gerry Lane was on scene in Creeslough, treating the critically injured and managing the medical efforts there, as was our Dublin based EMR, Dr Andy Patten.
“Dr Patten had been attending a wedding in Co Donegal when he received the alert on his phone and left the wedding to go to Creeslough to offer help.
“They both gave direct care on the night to some of those who were injured, some who survived and some who sadly passed.
“They did their work not for thanks but out of a sense of duty, professionalism and compassion. Being thanked can be difficult, but it’s an incredible thing.
“Sometimes in Ireland we find it hard to accept gratitude for the help we give others. We must learn better to accept it, especially in a situation like Creeslough.
“Our priority as a charity is to provide voluntary doctors and responders with the right equipment and capabilities, enable them to step into situations like the Creeslough explosion, and do their best to help.
“We know the help is invaluable. We heard later that having Dr Lane and Dr Patten at the scene enabled some of the hospital staff to stay at the hospital to receive patients there.
“So we have to learn to accept gratitude in whatever shape or form it comes, whether it’s a hug or a letter, someone advocating for us, donating to our charity, or in this case creating a song to encourage donations, the recipient of gratitude has to be able to accept it.
“Every thank you is absolute validation of our work and we need to remember that for those who want to say thank you, it’s part of their process and their dealing with grief.”
Fr John Joe Duffy who anointed the dead and wounded in the immediate aftermath of the explosion last year, is still struggling to find a peaceful place for his emotions following the disaster.
But he was instrumental in reaching out to the state and voluntary responders, the search and rescue teams, emergency services and support teams to invite them, on the request of the families, back to Creeslough this weekend.
He explained that the community wants to thank them and offer comfort for the difficult roles they played.
SARDA founder Neil Powell will be attending today’s service with his search dog, Magnus, a Bloodhound, alongside Ralph O’Connor with his Border Collie search dog Floss, Michael McCamley with Labrador Bodhi and Trevor Hartley with Cocker Spaniel Tess.
Ralph said: “The dogs are so special and they help with every emotion. People connect with them. Little Tess and Bodhi were on scene at Creeslough with their handlers. They attended the funerals and they will be there for the service this weekend. It’s important for us to take them back, to be there.
“And it’s tremendous and deeply humbling when people you have worked to help, in turn offer you thanks and support.
“The job we do as volunteers is not easy. Sometimes we don’t have the happy endings we all want, but we do everything in our power to help, to save lives, to bring people back to their loved ones. We all live with the reality of working in crisis situations and no, it’s not easy.”
At Creeslough, it was specially trained search dogs who helped bring the casualties home, indicating the areas where they lay, walking onto the fallen buildings despite the dangers. The teams worked through the night and it took a full 24 hours before all the victims were recovered from the rubble.
Fourteen-year-old Leona Harper was the tenth and last to be found, and her parents Donna and Hugh have kept in touch with both the SARDA dog team and the K9 Search and Rescue NI team, whose dogs were sent in to help everyone.
Donna said she will never forget what the dogs and handlers did for her daughter and her family. She said: “If it wasn’t for them it might have been a longer wait.”
Today K9 Search and Rescue NI volunteers, Jonny Caughey and Todd McMaster will attend the service with search dog, Labrador Max, a veteran of the Turkish earthquake searches.
His hander, Ryan Gray, founder of the charity, said: “None of us does this work to be thanked but we’re so grateful to know our dogs and handlers helped the Creeslough families in their hour of need.
“The outcome was very sad, we never forget that. To be offered thanks and comfort by those who are suffering most, is quite hard to take but it means everything, absolutely everything.”
You can click here to contribute on iDonate, ‘Stolen Dreams – In Loving Memory of Leona Harper’
Large numbers are expected to attend the services and Donegal County Council will be working with stewards and the Gardai on the day. The N56 road through Creeslough village is expected to close from 2.30pm to 4pm with signposted diversions in place.
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