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Heartbreaking details of the final moments of three children and seven adults who perished in the devastating explosion in Donegal – described by locals as the county’s ‘darkest day’ – emerged last night.

Leona Harper, 14, died while choosing an ice cream from the fridge in the petrol station shop in Creeslough which was reduced to rubble in the blast.

Jessica Gallagher, 23, a designer who recently moved back to her hometown of Creeslough after spending several years living in Paris, was also among the 10 people killed in the explosion. Her boyfriend was airlifted to a hospital in Dublin where he is being treated for severe burns.

The other victims included a mother, named locally as Catherine O’Donnell, and her 13-year-old son James, a third woman and three other men.

Teenager Leona Harper, 14, who formerly played for Letterkenny Rugby Club, has been named among the ten victims

Teenager Leona Harper, 14, who formerly played for Letterkenny Rugby Club, has been named among the ten victims

Jessica Gallagher, 23, has been named as one of the ten victims killed in a massive gas explosion at a petrol station in Creeslough, Co Donegal yesterday

Jessica Gallagher, 23, has been named as one of the ten victims killed in a massive gas explosion at a petrol station in Creeslough, Co Donegal yesterday

Miss Gallagher is thought to have been a native of Creeslough, a tiny village of less than 400 people located in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland, who lived in an apartment conjoined with the petrol station

Miss Gallagher is thought to have been a native of Creeslough, a tiny village of less than 400 people located in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland, who lived in an apartment conjoined with the petrol station

The youngest victim, a five-year-old girl and her father, a Zambian man aged in his 50s, were killed moments after they entered the Applegreen store at 3.20pm on Friday. It is understood they moved to the picturesque Donegal village about a year ago with other members of their family.

The little girl’s brother, who moved to Donegal from the UK, was among those who kept a vigil at the site of the explosion yesterday.

Leona Harper’s heartbroken brother, Anthony Harper, paid a moving tribute to her last night. He said he couldn’t have asked for ‘a better little sister’. ‘Leona, I love you so much and we all love you so much,’ he wrote on Facebook.

Another one of the victims has been identified as Catherine O'Donnell, who is understood to have died in the tragedy alongside her young son.

 Another one of the victims has been identified as Catherine O’Donnell, who is understood to have died in the tragedy alongside her young son.

Catherine O'Donell (right) is understood to have been with her 14-year-old son James when they were caught up in the explosion at Applegreen services station in Creeslough, County Donegal

Catherine O’Donell (right) is understood to have been with her 14-year-old son James when they were caught up in the explosion at Applegreen services station in Creeslough, County Donegal

Jessica Gallagher, pictured with her mother and father in 2017, studied design at a university in Paris and she'd travelled extensively around Asia

Jessica Gallagher, pictured with her mother and father in 2017, studied design at a university in Paris and she’d travelled extensively around Asia

Letterkenny Rugby Club also paid tribute to the young teenager last night.

‘We are heartbroken to say our worst fears have been confirmed. Leona Harper tragically lost her life yesterday in Creeslough.

‘Leona was a talented rugby player and an important part of our U14 girls’ team.

‘To Leona’s parents, Hugh and Donna, her brothers Anthony and Jamie, and all of her teammates, we offer you our deepest condolences and support.

‘There are no words that feel strong enough at a moment of deep sorrow such as this. Rest in peace, Leona.’

Leona was due to have a sleepover in her friend’s house on Friday. The two friends entered the shop just minutes before the blast – which is believed to have been caused by a cylinder of gas in a nearby apartment – after finishing school for the week.

A family friend told the Irish Mail on Sunday: ‘The two girls went into the shop. The plan was that Leona would go to her pal’s house on a sleepover.

‘They went in to get an ice cream. Leona was found yesterday at the ice cream fridge in the shop and her friend was found at the door into the shop. She was blown out of the shop and onto the doorstep by the blast. Leona’s pal was found in the rubble and one of her legs is broken.’

Emergency services attend the scene following the deadly explosion at a petrol station in an Applegreen station, Donegal

Emergency services attend the scene following the deadly explosion at a petrol station in an Applegreen station, Donegal

A major incident was declared after a gas explosion at a petrol station in County Donegal on Friday afternoon

A major incident was declared after a gas explosion at a petrol station in County Donegal on Friday afternoon

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (centre) visits the scene of an explosion at Applegreen service station in the village of Creeslough

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (centre) visits the scene of an explosion at Applegreen service station in the village of Creeslough

Members of the fire service attend the disaster at Creeslough in County Donegal, which saw ten people lose their lives

Members of the fire service attend the disaster at Creeslough in County Donegal, which saw ten people lose their lives

Jessica Gallagher’s boyfriend is among eight survivors being treated in hospital following the devastating explosion.

He is in a specialist burns unit where his condition was described last night as critical.

The seven other survivors are still receiving treatment at Letterkenny University Hospital. They were all in a stable condition last night.

Local visual artist Ian Joyce, who knew some of those killed in the blast, including Ms Gallagher, told the MoS: ‘I am shocked. I knew a young woman who died in the blast. My daughter knew her. She lived in Paris for a number of years, and she had just moved home. She was a designer.

‘I know her family and they are all extremely talented musicians and artists. This is going to have a permanent impact on the community here.’

The Catholic Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian, who is based in nearby Letterkenny, described the tragedy as ‘Donegal’s darkest day’.

Bishop McGuckian said the loss of the 10 lives was a ‘heart-breaking human tragedy’.

He said: ‘It was with utter disbelief that I heard the news of the devastating explosion at a filling station in Creeslough. I am deeply saddened at the loss of life and at the extent of injuries caused.’

Emergency services at the scene of an explosion at Applegreen service station

Emergency services at the scene of an explosion at Applegreen service station

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar travelled to Creeslough last night to attend a service in memory of the victims near the scene.

Speaking to RTÉ just yards from the scene of the tragedy, Mr Martin said the village was shrouded by ‘a terrible silence reflecting an awful loss on a scale no one can comprehend’.

The Taoiseach paid tribute to the hard work of the emergency services, north and south, who rushed to help the rescue effort alongside local volunteers.

He said the emergency workers ‘spoke very movingly about the community which worked such long hours to help. They spoke very movingly of what they saw’.

Mr Martin added: ‘The values of the community will hopefully help the community to endeavour to deal with this. We can assist by thought, prayer and, where we can, by being there in person.’

In a statement released earlier yesterday, President Michael D Higgins said the tragedy is ‘a terrible blow to a community that is closely knit and where every loss and injury will be felt by every member of the community and far beyond’.

Floral tributes have been placed outside the scene of the tragedy in Creeslough

Floral tributes have been placed outside the scene of the tragedy in Creeslough

J.J. McGowan, chief ambulance officer for the northwest region, speaks to the media about the Creeslough service station explosion

J.J. McGowan, chief ambulance officer for the northwest region, speaks to the media about the Creeslough service station explosion

Demonstrating the widespread impact of the tragedy further afield, UK prime minister Liz Truss paid tribute last night, stating: ‘I am shocked and saddened by the tragic loss of life in Donegal. My deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends who have lost loved ones and to the entire community of Creeslough as they come together in their moment of grief.’

Local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy appealed to people around the country and the world for prayers ‘to carry’ the community through its darkest hour.

The cause of the explosion has not yet been confirmed, although there was growing speculation last night that the blast originated from a gas cylinder in one of the apartments built next to the busy garage.

One local woman, who helped a mother to identify her child at the scene, told the MoS: ‘I thought it was an atomic bomb and I was looking for the plume. Everything shook and then there was just silence, you could not even hear the birds. There wasn’t any fire and there wasn’t any smell.’

Another woman added: ‘My daughter thought it was a shooting. She didn’t know what was going on.’

Dr Paul Stewart, who has been the GP in Creeslough for the past 22 years and who took part in the rescue operation, said: ‘It was horrific. I grew up in Belfast through the Troubles and it reminded me of then – three floors collapsed into those poor people.

The explosion took place in Creeslough, is a tiny village in County Donegal on the northern side of the Republic of Ireland, with a population in 2016 of 393 people

‘It was 15 minutes before services arrived so friends and neighbours were all trying to pull people out of the rubble. They got a good few out and some of us then, despite the danger, went back in.

‘We had to wait then. We knew there were people who hadn’t come home.

‘This has been a huge tragedy. We have lost friends neighbours and loved ones,’ Dr Stewart said.

‘It is going to take a long time to heal those scars, maybe years,’ he told RTÉ.

Investigating gardaí have described the blast as an accident but say they are still keeping an open mind.

Garda technical experts will spend the next few days combing the site to determine the cause of the explosion.

Local TD and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue last night paid tribute to the local community and volunteers who put their lives on the line to assist the rescue operation.

‘The community put their lives at risk yesterday to try and help people,’ he told the MoS. ‘Really, it takes your mind back to something seen during the Troubles years ago.

‘Families had a harrowing night. We have had dark days in the county before.

‘This is one of the darkest.’

Tears drown the homes of Donegal: Devastated community faces enormity of three children and seven adults wiped out in explosion at petrol service station

By Valerie Hanley

Not even a whisper could be heard on Creeslough’s main street after the explosion ripped through the heart of the picturesque Donegal village’s petrol station.

But the eerie silence in the aftermath of the blast was pierced when the last body of the three children and seven adults who lost their lives in the tragic accident was removed from the wreckage of the site shortly after 1pm yesterday.

And then the only sound that could be heard was that of a heartbroken mother, wounded to the core.

Her voice was not a cry. It was not a roar.

It was the scream of a woman who has lost everything that mattered in life: her beloved child.

And even though dozens of people gathered together as the emergency services escorted the remains of the 14-year-old girl to a waiting ambulance, there were no words.

Only the loud wails from a loving mother who could never have realised when she waved her teenage daughter off to school on Friday morning that it would be the last time she would ever again see her alive.

Taoiseach and Tánaiste attend Mass for victims and families 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar visited the devastated village of Creeslough last night to join the community at a special Mass to remember the victims.

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Speaking earlier, Mr Martin promised ‘all the services of the State’ will be made available to the community.

He expressed his ‘deepest sympathies’ to the entire community of Creeslough ‘on this darkest of days for Donegal and the country’.

He told RTÉ Radio: ‘It has been extraordinarily difficult and traumatic for people who had long waits, huge anxiety and stress waiting for news of their loved ones.’

He paid tribute to the local emergency services who ‘worked throughout the night’ and praised the role of the North’s emergency services, saying: ‘They came willingly and very quickly. That will be long remembered.’

President Michael D Higgins said the shock is shared ‘by all people throughout the country on learning of the terrible tragedy which has unfolded in Creeslough, Co. Donegal’.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan also expressed his sympathies to the victims’ ‘families, friends and the entire community of Creeslough and Donegal, who have shown huge strength, resilience and unity’.

‘This is a truly dark and awful event that has numbed the country,’ he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: ‘We send love and solidarity to the people of Creeslough who this morning woke to incredible sorrow.’

Donegal Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh, who lives just 6km from the village, said: ‘I get a sense now that people need to know people will be around for them.’

 

The girl’s remains were found next to the ice cream fridge where she stood when a blast ripped through the Apple Green garage and shop at 3.20pm on Friday.

The girl and a friend had gone into the shop minutes earlier to get an ice cream before heading to her pal’s house for a planned sleep-over.

But minutes after the pair skipped in together without a care in the world only one of them made it out alive.

She was found amid rubble at the doorway and this weekend, much to the relief of her family, is recovering after doctors treated her for a broken leg.

A friend of the two girls’ families told the Irish Mail on Sunday: ‘The two girls went into the shop to get an ice cream.

‘They were going to have a sleep-over. One of the girls was found at the door of the shop in rubble and one of her legs was broken.

‘Her pal was found at the ice cream fridge where she had gone to get an ice cream before going to her pal’s house for a sleep-over.’

Whatever happened between the time the two girls stepped into the village shop and garage to pick out their favourite ice creams has left 10 people dead.

And the Garda technical team will be combing through the wreckage of the garage over the next few days to establish what exactly unfolded.

But whatever the investigation finds, the village of Cresslough will never be the same again.

As he visibly struggled to carry the woes of his heart-broken community on his broad shoulders, parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy said, ‘The community is trying to respond the best they can and I would ask for the prayers of people to carry us through this awful tragedy’.

Fr Duffy added: ‘We have been contacted by people from all over the country and the world with prayers. Our hearts are broken… some of those involved in the search and rescue were looking for people they know.

‘We are all at a loss. We pray God can carry us through this.’

Fr Duffy was one of a number of clerics who attended the scene since details of the accident began to emerge on Friday afternoon.

As members of the emergency services used listening devices, specialist dogs and cameras to help them find survivors and those who lost their lives, clerics of all denominations kept a dusk-till-dawn vigil until all the bodies were recovered.

Local Garda superintendent David Kelly paid tribute to all those who played a part in rescuing eight survivors and helping to retrieve the bodies of the 10 people who lost their lives.

Seven people were initially thought to have died with police searching into the night using cranes and sniffer dogs

Seven people were initially thought to have died with police searching into the night using cranes and sniffer dogs

Homes above the Ulster petrol station and convenience store were pictured hollowed out by the blast

Homes above the Ulster petrol station and convenience store were pictured hollowed out by the blast

Rubble covered the ground as members of the public searched the scene for injured people

Rubble covered the ground as members of the public searched the scene for injured people

At a media briefing held outside Milford Garda station yesterday afternoon, Supt Kelly, initially hesitated slightly before delivering his briefing.

‘Excuse me if I get emotional,’ he said to those gathered, before recalling how he drove past the scene of the tragedy on his way to a meeting on Friday.

‘Yesterday afternoon I went to a meeting in Falcarragh and was driving by the location where this happened,’ he explained.

‘Little did I think I’d be standing before you here today.

‘It’s a tragedy for the community – there are families left devastated.’

Paying tribute to all members of the emergency services from Donegal and the North who helped, the community and to his own officers – many of whom worked throughout the past two days even though they were off duty – Supt Kelly added, ‘That is what it is to be in Donegal. We look out for each other’.

Local Gardaí police and the National Ambulance Service (NAS) urged locals to avoid the area

Local Gardaí police and the National Ambulance Service (NAS) urged locals to avoid the area

Multiple emergency service vehicles are in attendance and a Coastguard helicopter was also providing support

Multiple emergency service vehicles are in attendance and a Coastguard helicopter was also providing support

Just over 400 people live in Creeslough, tucked into a beautiful valley with Sheephaven bay on one side, Ards Forest on the other, overlooked by the majestic Muckish Mountain.

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Until this weekend the little village’s most famous daughter was singer Bridie Gallagher. Her best-know song was The Homes Of Donegal. Its closing lyrics have a particular poignancy as the devastated families prepare to bury their loved ones.

‘The time has come for me to go and bid you all adieu

‘For the open highway calls me back to do these things I do

‘But when I’m travelling far away Your friendship I’ll recall

‘And please God I’ll soon return unto the homes of Donegal.’

‘Like something you would see in a movie. We helped as best we could. It was very hard to know where to start’

By Stephen Maguire 

A coffee shop manager has spoken of the terrifying moment she thought a bomb was going off when the explosion rocked the village of Creeslough.

Brother and sister at heart of community 

The forecourt at the centre of the devastating Donegal blast was the hub of a tiny rural community: a shop, a petrol station, a meeting place and a thriving local business that was recently refurbished.

With a full grocery offering including a deli, ATM, bakery, off-licence and forecourt, the busy Creeslough outlet meant people in the village didn’t have to travel to nearby Letterkenny for supplies.

The family-run business, owned by siblings Annette and Danny Lafferty, has long been a big part of the tight-knit community.

The family has been involved with the shop for decades and the pair learned the trade from their father, Danny Sr.

‘I started working in the shop after school from the age of 10, so shops are all I know,’ Ms Lafferty recently told ShelfLife Magazine.

‘I know all the customers and the craic would be good. It was always the plan for me that I would take over from my dad. This shop has been trading under the management of my dad from the early ’70s and now the baton has been handed over to myself and Danny.’

Ms Lafferty works in the post office next door, which was run by her aunt until she retired in May. She told the magazine she knows all the customers by their first names and enjoys the work.

‘It’s something different. I really enjoy it and we know most of the customers by their first names as soon as they come in. It’s seen as a hub of the local community.’

Local journalist Eamonn McFadden yesterday told RTÉ’s The Business show how people visit the shop regularly, sometimes several times a day.

‘You might meet your friend or your neighbour going down to the shop and you might stand chatting for a minute. You’d know the staff, you’d know the family, It’s that kind of place, it’s a country place,’ he said.

 

Siobhán Carr runs The Coffee Pod on the Wild Atlantic Campsite, just 100 yards from the scene of the Applegreen service station where the explosion killed three children and seven adults on Friday afternoon.

Among the victims were Leona Harper, 14, who was buying ice cream at the time; Jessica Gallagher, 23, who had moved back from Paris, and Catherine O’Donnell, whose 13-year-old son James was also killed. The youngest victim was just five years old. Her father, aged in his 50s, was also killed.

As Ms Carr looks out her window she can see the debris and the gaping roof of the tumbled garage.

She described the moment she heard the blast which shook the village to its core. She said: ‘We were just winding down for the day. There were a few people in the shop with us and we just heard a bang. Everyone just ran to see what they could do to help.

‘Everyone just ran to see what happened. No one knew what had happened. People were just rushing around to see what they could do to help. The community here is so good and so close. I saw locals going in with bare hands to clear rubble. It was horrific just watching it unfold and hearing that people were trapped.’

The Coffee Pod and the Huckleberry coffee shop at the opposite end of the village have been providing free refreshments for workers since the horrific incident.

‘We’re just trying to give whatever comfort we can. Even if it is just coming in to sit down.

‘Throughout the night, people were coming in all the time. It is such a busy shop and it is such a busy area. We have people here at the campsite on a daily basis.

‘We got to a stage where we had to turn food away. People have sent in stuff from other towns and villages. We have been inundated from people around the country.’ A local man who lives a kilometre from the centre of the explosion said he felt a ‘sonic boom’ from the explosion and was knocked off his chair.

Eamonn McFadden was at his home in Creeslough working at his laptop when the blast went off.

‘There was this huge bang and it was like a sonic boom. We were rocked to the very core. The house shook and the people in the house shook.

‘It was actually hard to describe what it felt like other than to call it a sonic boom. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,’ he said.

Eamonn said he knew something ‘catastrophic’ had happened. He rushed to the scene and found utter carnage and devastation.

‘It was like something you would see in a movie. It was catastrophic. There was no emergency services at the scene at that stage so we helped as best we could. It was just very difficult to know where to start.’

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