Moments after IRA bomb ripped through restaurant hero traffic warden Hugh ­Duncan emerged cradling child in his arms

Nick Owens
Mirror
12 Feb 2012

A young boy being carried out of the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast in the arms of a traffic warden after it was bombed in the Troubles

It was an iconic photograph which gave the people of ­Northern Ireland a glimmer of hope during their darkest days.

Just moments after an IRA bomb ripped through the packed Abercorn restaurant in Belfast, hero traffic warden Hugh ­Duncan emerged cradling a child in his arms… injured, but alive.

Splashed on the front pages of ­news­papers reporting the atrocity, including the next day’s Sunday Mirror, it became a defining image of The ­Troubles in Ulster.

The blast left two people dead and 139 others maimed or seriously injured. Yet the identity of the rescued child remained a mystery. For decades it was presumed to be a girl of around three years old… but nobody really knew. Until now.

Today, as Northern Ireland prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the blast, the Sunday Mirror can reveal that the lucky survivor was in fact a boy of three.

His name is Darren Trew, and at the moment the bomb exploded he was ­drinking an orange juice in the restaurant with his grandmother.

Now 43 and living in Australia, Darren recalls the moment he was caught up in the blast… and pays tribute to his saviour Mr Duncan, who has since died.

“That man saved my life,” said Darren at his home near Sydney this week.

“I’d have burned to death if he had not come in and dragged me out. My gran is just behind me in the picture. If Mr Duncan was here today I’d simply like to thank him for rescuing me. I owe him my life.”

For nearly four decades Darren has kept a faded Sunday Mirror showing the picture. Folded up and safely tucked away, it’s one of his most prized possessions.

On the 30th anniversary 10 years ago the Irish Daily Mirror published an appeal for the child in the picture to come ­forward.

Boy to man: Darren Trew in the kit room of his outdoor adventure business

But Darren didn’t see it in Australia. His identity has come to light now only because he ­recently contacted the original ­photo­grapher, freelancer Mike Charity, trying to get a copy of the print.

They became pals and Mike – who was on his way to the bar for a drink with friends when he captured the harrowing ­moment – told him people ­would love to hear his story.

Mike says: “I had no idea then that the picture would become so iconic. But ­looking at it now I feel it perfectly captures the heroism shown by ordinary folk.

“That night the shock of the day’s events caught up with me – I was physically sick as the images of the blast kept flying into my head.”

Despite being so young at the time, ­Darren has clear recollections, too…

“I’d been shopping in the city centre that Saturday afternoon with my grandmother and we popped into the Abercorn at about 4.30. She had a coffee and I had an orange juice. It was packed with more than 200 customers, including off-duty police and British soldiers.

“The owner was Catholic, but he was a very ­tolerant man who did not hold ­sectarian views, so it was a popular bar with both ­Protestants and Catholics. We’d been in there about 15 minutes and I ­remember telling Grandma my straw was blocked with orange bits.

“Right at that moment there was a big bang. I don’t recall much… just screams and flames.”

The Abercorn blast was one of Belfast’s most shocking terrorist atrocities. The city centre cafe was packed with women and children on a busy ­Saturday afternoon. Rescue workers had to step over ­bodies to reach ­survivors.

Handbags, prams and teddy bears were among the everyday items strewn among the rubble. The IRA has since unofficially confirmed that it carried out the attack.

Belfast-born Darren was shielded from the worst of the blast by his gran. She was left with a key ­buried in her leg, burst ear drums, bruises and cuts needing hundreds of stitches. A piece of flying debris, thought to be an upholstery button, left Darren with a two-inch dent in his skull, which is there to this day.

He does not recall being ­carried out, his clothes still smouldering from fires which broke out.

He says: “Mr Duncan handed me over to a paramedic who took me to hospital. I never saw him again.

“I don’t ­remember much until I woke up at the Royal Belfast Hospital after surgery. It saved my life and after a few weeks I was able to go home.”

Mr Duncan died of natural causes a few years later. Friends said he never fully ­recovered from what he saw that day.

“Hugh was right there in the middle of it carrying this little child out,” said former colleague Dennis Hall. “It had a bad effect on him and at dinner that night he sat just staring into space.

“I worked in Belfast for 25 years but this was the worst explosion I ever saw. I ­carried out one lady who had lost both legs and an eye. You were ­falling over the dead and ­unconscious to reach people ­screaming.”

For years ­afterwards, ­Darren ­stuttered, needed speech therapy, and jumped at the slightest bang, like a car backfiring.

Shortly after the bombing, his parents moved their young ­family – ­Darren and his sister Leeanne – to the safer small town of­ ­Carrickfergus. But his father found it hard to find work.

So when Darren was 12 the family began a new life Down Under, in Penrith, New South Wales, near the Blue Mountains. It was paradise for a boy who loved the outdoors.

“Even though we arrived in winter, it was warm and sunny. Belfast seemed a world away,” he recalls.

Although he remained proud of his Irish roots, Darren put the trauma of the blast behind him. His Ulster brogue gave way to an Aussie accent and he eventually took Australian citizenship.

All the time he was ­unaware that the identity of the child in the Abercorn photo had become an ­enduring mystery.

At 17, Darren joined the ­Royal Australian Air Force as an ­aircraft engineer.

Five years later he ­became a rock-climbing ­instructor. He now runs his own ­company organising ­Outback tours. Lately he has survived another two near-death ­experiences, including being bitten by one of the world’s deadliest snakes.

He recalls: “I was ­swimming along, ­canyoning with two ­British junior ­doctors and two ­Aussie nurses, when I put my hand on a log.

“Just as I reached out I ­noticed too late there was a fully-grown tiger snake on it. Its venom can kill you in a couple of hours. One of its fangs got part of my ­middle finger.

“We were totally cut off from the outside world in a water-filled canyon. If we’d stayed put we’d all have died from ­hypothermia, so I had to press on and get my clients home to safety.

“I was in a lot of pain, I could feel my heart about to explode. I was dizzy, dis­orient­ated and overwhelmed by nausea.

“But the nurses helped me wind a compression bandage round the length of my right arm so I could press on. Once I got them back, I went straight to hospital. They kept me in overnight until my heart stabilised.”

Then last year, Darren was struck by lightning while rock-climbing with a group of female tourists.

“As soon as the climb was ­finished, I bent down to unclip my rope and a bolt of lightning hit me right ­between my shoulder blades.

“The girls screamed and became ­hysterical because they thought I was dead. But I came to after a few ­seconds and I asked them what ­happened.

“They said they saw the lightning hit me. We packed up and got the hell out of there. It was the luck of the Irish again…”

Darren believes surviving the blast all those years ago has made him a naturally adventurous man who ­attempts to live life to the full.

“If I was a cat, I’d only have five or six lives left now,” he admits. “Perhaps being in that bombing made me less cautious, more adventurous and edgy ­without being reckless.

“It’s given me a ­determination to survive against the odds. I’ve ­certainly had my fair share of luck. One of these days I’ll get round to buying a lottery ­ticket.”

Timeline of the Troubles

1966: Rioting erupts between Catholics and Protestants in Derry

1969: British troops are sent to ­Northern Ireland to restore order

1970: Three years of particularly heavy violence begin, as British troops clash with the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries ­respond with attacks on the Catholic community

1972: The violence peaks with nearly 500 people killed, more than half civilians – the greatest loss of life in a single year of the conflict. On ­January 30, in the Bloody Sunday massacre, 14 civilians are shot dead by British troops in the Bogside area of Derry

1998: The Good Friday Agreement is signed, finally leading to the end of the cycle of murder and reprisals.

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