JOURNALIST and regular contributor to the Strabane Chronicle, Leona O’Neill says she will never forget the screams of a loved one at the scene of Lyra McKee’s killing in Derry on Thursday night.
Mrs O’Neill, who was just yards away from the 29-year-old when the gunman’s bullet struck, added that the shooting engendered immediate “chaos and disbelief and terror.”
“When a lone masked gunman came out onto the pathway and fired shots indiscriminately up the street towards police vehicles – as well as the neighbours, friends and children from their own community who had gathered beside the Land-Rovers to watch the events – no one realised what was happening,” Mrs O’Neill explained.
On the night in question, the Derry woman had been covering rioting in the Creggan area but said there had been no sense of threat or danger.
“As the first ‘pop’ of gunshots rang out I took cover behind a wall, but very few other people did,” she continued. “People asked: ‘Are they shots?’ ‘No it’s fireworks,’ some replied. ‘They’re firing blanks,’ someone else said. ‘They are just trying to scare the police.’
“From my position behind the wall I could see a young woman lying at the back left-hand wheel of a police vehicle, unconscious. Her friends, realising that she had fallen, began to scream ‘she’s shot, she’s been shot!’
“Someone who loved her screamed at the top of her lungs, a haunting sound I will never forget.
“There was chaos and disbelief and terror.
“People gathered around to help. My friend took off his coat to put under Lyra’s head.”
It was Mrs O’Neill who then rang 999 for an ambulance, although she admits she does not know what she said to the call handler.
“They calmly asked me questions about the patient’s condition and our location and I tried to answer them as best I could, while all around me were friends crying, people panicking, others saying she must have fallen and hit her head, she couldn’t have been shot. She just couldn’t have been.
“People had blood on their clothes and on their hands. Friends made to carry her the short distance to a car.
“The image of her being lifted by the arms and legs, gravely injured, the faces of her friends contorted in anguish, reminded me of the famous picture from Bloody Sunday of the group carrying Jackie Duddy, with Bishop Daly forging ahead waving his white handkerchief.
“Police officers hearing the commotion emerged from their vehicle, saw the grave condition the young woman was in and rushed her into the back of their vehicle.
“The sirens went on, the blue lights lit up the night and the police raced, through burning barricades and rioters, to take the stricken journalist to hospital.
“It was over in minutes. Lives were utterly changed in a heartbeat.”