We may search for the right words to describe the anguish in Creeslough but we won’t find them.

Twenty-five years ago, the journal du cancer made an astonishing arrival in our libraries. People’s stories about the Big C and their daily experience.

For so long, cancer has been talked about in whispers, as if acknowledging its presence out loud would make it more real, somehow give it the power to be more vicious. Or maybe the reason for the silence was simpler.

Maybe it was shame. Or guilt on the part of smokers. Or even the “it runs in this family” like domestic violence or alcoholism.

Cancer became a “normal” disease along with the cancer diary. Early versions were often published posthumously. All the same, these newspapers, like Tolstoy’s happy families. All different, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families. Likewise in the ritual institutionalization of the patient, whose life has gone from a “little round of acts and days” to an imperative schedule of tests and scans, surgeries and chemo.

The patient imposed himself on the language of the nurses, wandering between the consulting rooms and the radiology departments with the experts in rubber aprons, the weighted doors closing gently, the countdowns of warning before the enjoined immobility. The vomit and the purge. Hopes and setbacks.

The choices, each worse than the next, between plucking loose hair like an adult version of baby teeth, already frail in its grip of the scalp, or praying and saving, or shaving. Return to work, then return from work. Being complimented on thinness, then controlled by inept empathy with advice on not losing too much weight.

Cancer diaries are too often a record of losing control and shrinking. But the most tragic of them illustrates an essential truth: that even a diagnosis where the numbers, whether stages of disease progression or PSA scores, give the patient the ability to traverse the atmospheres of death before death actually occurs. The Victorians knew the orderly comfort of “putting your papers in order”.

But it’s more than that. The gradual realization that what seemed manageable can no longer be taken by the reins of medicine is in itself a signal for a new understanding, for resignation, even, perhaps, for a serene surrender to the inevitable.

No warning

Families and friends had no chance of getting through those deadly atmospheres at Creeslough. People several miles away heard the explosion and stood where they were, trying to figure out what it could be, knowing that whatever happened, the consequences were going to be catastrophic.

No warning. No time to sort anything. Just the demanding summons: come quickly, because you may be able to help. Come quickly even if you can’t help. Come quickly because one of yours could be there. Come quickly, whatever the danger to you. Come quickly, sirens in the background, screams ahead.

Ten red candles candles at St Michael’s Church in Creeslough Co Donegal, for the victims. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Elderly people, hearing speculation about a gas leak, remembered stories of lit matches in order to help find people in the dusty darkness. Those uninvolved were confused by the seemingly coincidental, rather than causal, presence of the gas station.

But those involved—those who knew someone of theirs was bound to be at that gas station or store—felt that leaden certainty that may be more helpful than hope, because it’s so assured in its deadly prediction. .

Within an hour, a magnificent array of first responders were in position, the gleaming, brightly striped vehicles, the impromptu roadside meetings, the necessary instinctive sorting of the chain of command.

The wounded were on their way to hospital while out in the field the examination continued of the loose but still attached ironwork with its sharp menace, the walls cut along the sharp, choppy lines of the stonework. The big diggers arrive, teams are formed, helmeted, booted, big gloved safety hands ready. The comfort of activity, sweat forming under the shiny protective jackets. Something to do. Anything. And an urgency, a feeling that when darkness settled around them, it would mark a milestone that no one wanted to reach, even though the big, cold, bright lights were ready to overcome that darkness.

Then the screeching whistle stopped everyone, and the prior instruction flowed in: “Shut up. Do not move. Pay attention to anything in the rubble. A shout. A slump. Anything that might indicate life.

They stood in hope, sweat cooling on their skin, and nothing happened to realize the hope. Nothing.

From shocking to tragic

The first deaths took it from shocking to tragic. No names have been shared. No identifiers of any kind. Just three dead. This is because parents and partners need to be informed before they hear or infer facts from the media. They must be told by members of An Garda Síochána.

Guards who knew, even on that glorious graduation day at Templemore when they threw their hats in the air, that they should. Provide this confirmation face to face. This is not one of the most dangerous tasks, but one of the most difficult, nonetheless.

Walking to a front door, repeating in their minds the sequence of identification, asking permission and recounting the deaths. Wait for the cry, denial or silent acceptance. Knowing some of the bereaved would actually express gratitude and sympathy to the two officers ending the family’s happiness.

A garda brings flowers to the scene.  Photo: PA
A garda brings flowers to the scene. Photo: PA

Gratitude and sympathy for them doing a horrible job. They were supposed to do it at Creeslough this weekend. With more families as the death toll rose.

Three became seven. Then 10. And then came a change. A point where curiosity met the tight nod of certainty: no one else was missing. Nobody else. Everyone counted. Paramedics are no longer relevant. The nature of the work changed at this time away from search and rescue.

Ten souls had been lost. There would be no more.

Now it was about moving the inanimate, watching the emergency services pull out, the slaps on the backs of co-workers leaving instead of saying goodbye. The day before, it was strangers brought together by the call of the siren. Now they were bound, bound by an unprecedented event.

The word was that they cooperated seamlessly, no matter what jurisdiction they came from or what department they belonged to. Statements from each service mentioned the others. People reading these statements on social media nodded in approval. They had to believe that the speakers were exceptional.

In the search for meaning, the need for heroism was paramount. Something to sustain, amid horror compounded by its randomness. Nobody to blame, nobody to punish, but maybe someone to look up to.

Today, Creeslough begins the shift to funeral familiarity. Attending will be family, friends and people who know each other at the local garage convenience store; people at the civil level of knowledge.

They will look for the right words. They won’t find them.

Brandon D. James