A THURLES man who narrowly escaped last Friday’s bomb blast in the heart of Oslo, has told the Tipperary Star of the courage of the Norwegian people in facing down the carnage which has torn the heart out of this normally peaceful country.
Shane Willoughby, son of well-known Thurles photographer George, returned to Ireland on Monday following a weekend he will never forget. A city break to Norway’s capital, planned to be a quiet few days away from home, turned into a nightmare when a lone fundamentalist planted a bomb only a few minutes walk away from the hotel Shane was staying in.
A newly qualified geography teacher, Shane picked Norway at random last April as a country off the beaten track to travel to with his friend Kenneth Walsh, from Johnstown in Kilkenny. Arriving in Oslo on Thursday night, Shane said they booked into the Comfort Express hotel in downtown Olso just hours before Anders Behring Breivik went on a joint bombing and shooting attack which has left dozens of people dead and injured.
Describing the extraordinary events, Shane said he took a photo of City Hall at 3.26pm on his mobile phone. This area would later be the scene of devastation when the bomb exploded. “We didn’t know what was going on,” says Shane after the bomb exploded. “Nobody knew. We saw all the birds fly away from the centre. This noise just resonated in the sky.” Thinking the blast was part of some royal commemoration, Shane and Kenneth made their way towards the city centre.
“I couldn’t tell you what it sounded like. It was easily the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. I think everybody in the city heard the bomb that day.” The bomb exploded only five or six minutes walk away from where they had been sitting. The epicentre of the explosion - an area which Shane walked through earlier in the morning looking for tourist information - became a war scene covered in shards of glass and debris.
“When the bomb went off on Friday, we had to evacuate our hotel,” says Shane. “We had no passport, no bags. It was a crime scene. They wouldn’t let us into our hotel. So we had to contact the Irish Embassy. They made sure we had an emergency passport so we could leave the country. We were also relocated to a new hotel, still in the city centre, but away from the immediate area of the bomb.
“All we had had were the clothes on our back and the cash in our back pockets, for maybe a day and half. Luckily, the next day, we were able to get our possessions back. We just walked around the city on Saturday night.”
He described the mood of Norway’s capital as “very sombre”. A Cathedral in the heart of the city, has become the focal point for an outpouring of sympathy for all Norwegians, native and immigrant. “I went in. There were people lighting candles. We went down every four or five hours, just to have a look at all the lovely messages of support, and the Teddy bears. It’d break your heart.”
Shane says that despite the tragedy, the Norwegians remained hospitable throughout the crisis. And despite being so close to the shock, he maintains he was never in immediate danger. “It was just shock everywhere. Sirens flying past, the police blocking the streets, the smell of smoke and rubber... that’s all we saw. But there was never a moment when we were in real danger.”
The Norwegians’ “true colours” shone though, despite the carnage. “Everyone was so polite. We met other Irish people who were displaced, and we all rallied around each other for the few days. But for me, the most sombre moment was the day after, on Saturday, when people were just walking the streets and talking to the soldiers... they were taking it in in a kind of ‘holy way’.”
Shane’s mother, Sally, brothers Alan and Stewart, and sisters Karen and Rachel, also hail from Thurles. Shane kept in contact with his family through the ordeal using his mobile phone. Stressing that he won’t let the experience colour his impression of Norway, Shane says “I’d definitely go again.”