The death toll from an explosion at a Co Donegal petrol station has risen to nine as political leaders described it as one of Ireland’s darkest days.
A search and recovery operation is continuing in the village of Creeslough for “further fatalities” as rescue workers try to locate several people still missing in the debris of the Applegreen service station. Eight other people are in hospital.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin is to travel to Donegal. He said the “entire nation is shocked” at the “unspeakable tragedy”.
A gas leak is thought to be the most likely cause of the blast which destroyed the village’s only shop, as well as apartments overhead.
“An Garda Siochana can now confirm nine fatalities as a result of this incident”, a spokesperson said.
“The search and recovery for further fatalities continues.”
Earlier, gardai confirmed four bodies had been recovered overnight. Three deaths were confirmed on Friday night.
Up to 30 people are believed to have been injured, some severely.
Emergency services from Northern Ireland have helped with the rescue operation. Assisted by local volunteers, emergency teams had worked through the night to reach people still trapped in the debris. Sniffer dogs drafted in from Belfast were also assisting with the search.
Today diggers were carefully lifting debris from the the destroyed buildings. It is understood a small number of people are still unaccounted for.
In an update this morning, gardai said: “Gardaí and Emergency Services remain at the scene in a search and recovery phase of this operation. An Garda Síochána can now confirm nine fatalities as a result of this incident. The search and recovery for further fatalities continues.”
The blast happened at 3.20pm on Friday. Such was the ferocity of the explosion, it was heard several kilometres away.
It collapsed the roof of the two-storey apartments and blanketed the forecourt in rubble and glass. The site includes a petrol station, shop, deli counter, post office and a hairdresser.
At the time of the explosion, there were groups of schoolchildren inside.
Today prayers were said in the local church for the families. Fr John Joe Duffy asked the congregation gathered at St Michael’s Church to pray for all those suffering this morning.
The Taoiseach described it as the “darkest of days for Donegal and the entire country”.
Mr Martin told RTE: “It is absolutely devastating and quite shocking in terms of the enormity of this tragedy, the scale of it. An explosion ripping through the normality of a community, with people going to the shop, the normal toing and froing of life.
Mr Martin thanked emergency services from both sides of the border who have helped in the search and rescue effort.
“We pay tribute and we thank, in the warmest way, the emergency services, who went into harm’s way, who did everything they possibly could to rescue, to help and to comfort the community and to all the emergency services, the Northwest and in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Martin said he expects the death toll to rise as it turns to a search and recovery effort.
“It’s very difficult for the families concerned in the community. We are with them and will be with them for the time ahead,” he said.
“A shocking toll and there will be more, and it’s a search operation now and we hope and pray.”
Irish president Michael D Higgins said: “This 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.”
Political leaders in Northern Ireland have sent their sympathies and prayers to those affected.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, in his speech at the DUP conference, said: “I want to express our sympathies to those families who have been bereaved in the tragic events in Donegal yesterday afternoon and those injured as a result of this explosion are foremost in our thoughts.
“We assure the people of Cresslough of our collective prayers and want them to know that they will continue to be in our thoughts in the days ahead.”
First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill said: “I offer my heartfelt sympathies to all the families who have lost loved ones in Creeslough. The country mourns with you in what is a horrific tragedy. We pray for those injured that they make a speedy recovery, and those families who still await news of loved ones missing.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie said it was “terrible news” and his thoughts and prayers are with the people of Cresslough, the victims and their families.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “My thoughts are with everyone in Creeslough and our Donegal neighbours today. I can’t begin to imagine the pain that the families of those who died and the entire community are feeling. An awful tragedy.”
Sandra Duffy, Mayor of Derry and Strabane District Council, tweeted: “Prayers with our neighbours in Donegal this evening following the tragic events unfolding in Creeslough Thinking of everyone affected by the gas explosion at the Applegreen Station.”
Speaking at the scene this morning, one of the rescue team praised the response to the tragedy.
“Within minutes, workers from local companies arrived on the scene with diggers and have worked all through the night,” he said. “It is such a tragic event, but it’s times like these when people come together to support each other.”
Meanwhile, stories of panic and heartbreak were emerging from the scene.
The mother of a child believed to be trapped inside described how she was originally told her daughter was dead, only to be told later that it was not her daughter who had been found near the entrance of the shop and she remains missing.
The distraught woman paced up and down past the garda cordon trying to ask each passing emergency service person if they had news of her child.
She stood for hours in the cold, waiting to know if her child was dead or alive.
She told the Irish Independent she had rung all the hospitals seeking information but the teenager had not been transported to Letterkenny, Altnagelvin or Sligo hospitals.
The woman said she had to tell her husband first that their daughter was dead and to make his way to Letterkenny hospital where she believed her remains had been taken.
She then had to tell him she was not dead but missing and to search for her among the injured in the hospital.
Amid the chaos, the family of another woman was told she had been found conscious in the forecourt and was on her way to hospital, only to later be told it was not her and she was unaccounted for.
Helicopters airlifted survivors from the scene, and ambulances ferried the injured and the dead to Letterkenny Hospital.
Manager of Letterkenny Hospital Sean Murphy said it was an “unbelievably tragic and sad day” for the community and county.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Murphy said eight people were brought to the hospital, one of whom was transferred to a specialist unit in Dublin, while a number of people were also treated at the scene yesterday.
He paid tribute to the work of staff at the hospital, as well as community and care services in the area, adding: “People just responded so well, families were so understanding at such a tragic time.”
He said they did admit a number of children.
The blast came out of the blue on a bright autumn afternoon when locals and visitors to the glamping site across the road would normally have been milling around the busy community hub.
Emergency services from both sides of the border worked under floodlights through the night to try to locate and rescue those feared still trapped inside.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service sent a specialist rescue team along with specialist officers to the scene.
The Northern Ireland Air ambulance and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) are also providing assistance, as well as the Irish Coast Guard’s Rescue 118 helicopter from Sligo.
It is understood those working on the site and searching for survivors in the rubble are concerned the building could further collapse.
The service station and adjoining post office is run by the well-known and respected Lafferty family.
Large parts of the facade of the upstairs apartment complex were ripped off during the explosion, and the roof collapsed, along with the roof of the service station, while several cars were damaged by masonry propelled by the force of the blast.
Inside the apartments passers-by could see beds and pictures hanging from walls.
Adrian MacAuley from Londonderry owns an apartment behind the petrol station.
“The place seems to be devastated,” he told the BBC. “Our thoughts are with anybody that was injured in it because Creeslough is a fantastic community.”
Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian, who is from Co Antrim, said everyone in the county was “shocked and shaken beyond words”.
Speaking from the scene, he said Creeslough was a “peaceful and quiet town” and it was a “terrible day”.
“There is a dark cloud over Creeslough as this scene unfolds before us – it is very sombre here and there are silent prayers being said,” he told the BBC.
One local man who lives just a kilometre from the scene said he was thrown from his seat as he worked at his desk.
“I couldn’t believe the power of it and I didn’t know what had happened. We drove into town and it was just carnage,” he said.
Irish Agriculture Minister and Fianna Fail TD for Donegal Charlie McConalogue said: “People are shocked and numbed.
“The scenes from the event are reminiscent of the images from the Troubles years ago, in terms of the scene on the ground and the damage and the debris.”
Local Sinn Féin politician Pearse Doherty said the community in Creeslough “will be forever changed”.
Applegreen managing director Fiona Matthews extended the firm’s sympathies last night.
“We are deeply saddened and shocked to learn the devastating news that lives have been lost in today’s tragic incident at Applegreen Creeslough in Co Donegal. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the deceased, those who have been injured, and the wider Creeslough community,” she said.
“Creeslough is a small village and the supermarket and Applegreen outlet operated by our local partners there are at the heart of the community. Like the rest of Ireland, tonight we stand in solidarity with that community.”
Source: Belfast Telegraph