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June 2019
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1999-07-11 Choir director aims to bridge river of red in N. Ireland

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


When Daryl Simpson thinks about it -- and he thinks about it a lot -- he remembers the color of it.


"The shock of red," he said.


"Everything seemed to be red. The ground, the walls, the makeshift beds on the floor." The horror of that day had a color to it and it appalled him as he searched a blood-splattered hospital in Omagh, Northern Ireland. Several relatives had disappeared in the chaos of a bomb that killed 29 and injured 370 people, who had been doing nothing more political than walking through the sunshine of a carnival-like day. "It was a beautiful day, the sun shining, which is not always the case here," Simpson said. He is musician, a performer, a tenor, a tutor, and, 11 months ago, he was a panicked grandson, brother and nephew searching desperately for relatives. He was in a piano shop 200 yards from the bomb when the bomb was detonated last August. The Irish are a literate lot, and one of them described it later as Dante's "Inferno." But a simple "hell" would suffice as a description. "I knew my sister and granny and two aunts were in that area.


I panicked," Simpson said. He spoke by telephone from his home in Northern Ireland. His war is against war. Along with a group of Protestant and Catholic teenagers, Simpson, 22, will be in Milwaukee this week to present a concert of the Omagh Community Youth Choir, which he formed after the bomb devastated his town. When the bomb exploded, Simpson told his mother to stay put and hurried through the carnage, looking for their relatives. "It looked like Vietnam, or one of those war movies," he said. "The dust was still settling. Rubble everywhere, and anyone still standing covered in blood and quite a few not standing."


Within a short distance he counted 16 bodies. "It was completely chaotic," he said. "People with clothes blown off 'em and people with serious, serious injuries." He stopped people he knew, asked and then went on, looking for his sister, his grandmother, his aunts. "The more people I asked, the more panicked I became," Simpson said. He couldn't find them. Much later, he learned that his sister, Diane, was in a clothes shop across from the car that carried the bomb. Someone had rushed in to say there was a bomb alert, which is common in Omagh, and she and the other shoppers were on their way to the rear of the store when the blast occurred.


"The force blew through the shop and she walked straight out a hole in the back (wall)," Simpson said. "My sister was in deep shock." His aunts had been in a nearby coffee shop and escaped everything but the terror. When Simpson couldn't find his grandmother, he headed to the red -- the hospital. Several years before, he had spent three months there recovering from a rugby injury, so he knew the place well.


He went through it three or four times, he said, until he finally found his grandmother, who had shrapnel wounds on her head. His grandmother had been in a pharmacy when the bomb went off. Before she was taken by ambulance to the hospital, a shop worker, familiar with his grandmother's serious and long-standing blood pressure problems, gave her medicinal help, which Simpson thinks saved her life. "On the road I live on, a half-mile long, five people were killed," Simpson said. "A friend's sister was killed -- she was 19. A guy I grew up with, him and his father, killed. A girl from my class killed."


He talked about the devastation because he wants people to concentrate on reconciliation. "To get rid of the prejudices, you have to start with the young people," he said. On Friday, Simpson will direct 28 Catholic and Protestant young people -- the Omagh Community Youth Choir -- in an 8 p.m. performance at Schwan Concert Hall, Wisconsin Lutheran College, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave. Ticket information is available at Milwaukee Irish Fest, 476-3378, or the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, 345-8800. Money from the concert will go to the Omagh Fund, which helps victims and their families.


One of the songs the choir will sing is "Across the Bridge of Hope": "Orange and green don't matter, united now, don't shatter our dream. Scatter the seeds of peace over our land, so we can travel, hand in hand, across the bridge of hope." These young people want to move to the side of the bridge where red is only the color of the sun setting on terrorism.