IT was coming up to lunchtime on June 17, 1994 when the fire alarm sounded.
The first thing I noticed was the quizzical look on the face of my English teacher Mr Keown when he heard the bell.
“Right then, I suppose we had better go,” he told the class, leading us out to the fire assembly point on the front hockey pitch of Sullivan Upper School.
“That’s weird,” I said to a classmate, “aren’t teachers always told when there’s going to be a fire drill?”
Then I remembered the pupils sitting their ‘A’ levels in the school hall that morning. What sort of inconsiderate person would organise a fire drill in the middle of a crucial test?
It didn’t make any sense.
And then the ambulances arrived, followed by the police cars and the fire engines screeching to a halt outside the school’s front door.
On the hockey pitch about 150 yards away, nearly 1,000 pupils and a few dozen teachers looked on in bafflement.
The air fizzed with speculation. A gunman had got in and shot the sixth formers said one of my friends. Another suggested there was a hostage situation in progress. Our teachers knew nothing.
After the ambulances had taken away the casualties we returned to our class and Mr Keown told us what he had learned of the incident in the intervening half-hour.
A man in a boiler suit had entered the school hall during the ‘A’ level French exam and attacked the pupils with an improvised flame-thrower. Six badly burned teenagers had been rushed to hospitals in Belfast. Mr Keown didn’t know if any of them had died.
There was no point carrying on with our lessons, but someone suggested we switch on the TV. There it was – our school as the lead story on the BBC One O’clock News.
I think, though I can’t be sure, that Peter Sissons was presenting that lunchtime. “Is there any indication,” he asked the Beeb’s reporter on the scene, “of paramilitary involvement in the attack?”
It was both an obvious and a stupid question. Obvious, because at that time Northern Ireland was in the midst of a 25-year civil war in which human decency had been the first victim.
If paramilitaries could blow up a war memorial on Remembrance Day, or open fire on mourners at a funeral, then what was to stop them from attacking teenagers as they sat their exams?
But at the same time, it was an idiotic question to ask. Why would any paramilitary group want to attack a group of schoolchildren sitting their exams?
And even if some group of three-letter thugs felt the urge to murder my schoolmates, why would they use an improvised flame-thrower? There’s no need for a fire extinguisher full of petrol and a Zippo lighter when you’ve dozens of automatic rifles lying around.
It turned out the perpetrator was not a paramilitary but a mentally unstable former pupil with a grudge against the school which he believed had given him poor career advice several decades earlier.
A few years later, while in prison, he died. Thankfully, none of his victims did.
It wasn’t Peter Sissons’ fault that he wrongly linked the attack to paramilitaries. He was speculating, as my friends and I had done earlier on the hockey pitch.
It’s what humans do when we don’t know what’s just happened. It’s what we were all doing last Friday after the bomb and gun attack in Norway.
Reporters and commentators wanted a motive for the murderous rampage in Oslo and many of them moved with depressing speed to point the finger at Islamic groups.
The Sun, as is often the case, was the worst offender. “Norway’s 9/11” its front page blared the following morning, complete with the subhead “Al-Qaeda massacre”.
Inside, an editorial explained that Norway had been attacked because of its role in Afghanistan and Libya.
Turning to the effect of the attack on Britain, the Sun demanded that “Muslim hate preachers” must be arrested in this country and that it was the duty of Islamic people here to “stop their impressionable young men being recruited as bombers”.
What a difference a day makes. By the time that edition of the Sun had hit the streets, it had become clear that the man who planted the bomb in Oslo and shot dozens of young people on the island of Utoya was not a Muslim, but a Christian.
An extremist, to be sure, but an extremist Christian. Which raises one or two questions.
Will the Sun, or indeed anyone else, now call for Christian “hate preachers” to be arrested? Will all Christians be lectured on their duty to “stop their impressionable young men” from becoming bombers?
Will “Christian-looking” men be routinely harassed by airport security?
Will Christians be rounded up on the flimsiest of evidence and interned for years at Guantanamo Bay?
This time, there’s no need for speculation. We all know the answer to each of these questions is “no”.