The Gothic Guildhall's main chamber, with its pipe organ, stained-glass windows and flowing burgundy draperies, has been converted into a vast high-technology courtroom. There are wooden carrels and lecterns for the 60 lawyers involved three for each victim and a group for the government representing the paratroopers a presiding table for the three- judge panel, and large television screens suspended from the oak- beamed ceiling around the hall.
Panoramic color videos, computer reconstructions, highlighted text passages, grainy black-and-white contemporary photographs and accompanying charts and graphs are displayed as witnesses grippingly describe how they fled the gunfire, took cover behind low walls and telephone booths and saw friends die.
The key to determining who fired the fatal shots is the direction the rounds came from, and a recent witness tracked the trajectory with the kind of gruesome detail that regularly intrudes on the decorous formal proceedings. He pointed out the spot on the computer-generated picture of a wall where he remembered having seen the embedded eyelid and lashes of a victim lying nearby who had been shot in the head.
The dead were participants in a march called to protest Britain's policy of internment without trial. The most generous interpretation of what happened when the marchers reached the boundary of the Catholic Bogside neighborhood as they headed downtown is that British paratroopers were whipped into a vengeful panic by overzealous commanders and ended up firing recklessly at the civilians, who scattered at the troops' approach. At least five of the victims were shot in the back, and a sixth was cut down while waving a white handkerchief as he went to comfort a fallen friend.
A more damning view is holding dramatic sway this week because of two new feature-length films broadcast on television to mark the anniversary. The films portray the soldiers deliberately killing Catholics they knew to be unarmed, planting nail bombs on their bodies to justify the killings and then holding boisterous celebrations in pubs afterward.
Bloody Sunday was an event that, overnight, radicalized Catholic youth, prompting large-scale enlistments in the Irish Republican Army and setting off three decades of organized sectarian violence that has cost more than 3,600 lives.
Four years ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair reopened the hasty and widely disparaged investigation carried out in 1972 by the lord chief justice, Lord Widgery, which exonerated the heavily armed paratroopers and faulted the civilian protesters.
The Widgery tribunal accepted without any corroborating evidence the soldiers' claims that they had been fired upon first and said that there was a "strong suspicion" the marchers were carrying bombs and weapons, though none were ever found and there been no accounts of any from witnesses so far.
For the legal teams at the reopened inquiry, the daily depictions of the fury and panic of that day are matters to record on laptops and in notebooks. For the stricken-looking people in the families' gallery, who are often hearing for the first time the details of how loved ones died, they are cause for sighs, comforting gasps and sorrowful nods.
"It's very painful, very hard to take on board," said John McKinney, 38, whose brother Gerald, a 35-year- old roller skating rink operator, was a victim. "But as long as the truth is coming out, it can only help to heal."
Tony Docherty, 39, a longtime campaigner for the inquiry who lost his father, Patrick, then 31, said, "Nobody said it would be easy, but we're absolutely determined to get the truth out."
The proceedings here actually got under way in March 2000 and are not expected to end until 2004. The cost is projected to end up at more than $200 million. The case has engaged some of Britain's most famous lawyers, and some of them have individually made more than $1 million.
British Conservatives have criticized the proceeding as too lengthy and expensive. "It is a craven act of appeasement by the government to the terrorists, and it should have been stopped long ago," Nick Hawkins, a Tory legal affairs spokesman, said in the House of Commons this month.
Northern Ireland Protestant politicians have been opposed to the inquiry from the start, seeing it as another concession to Catholics, who the Protestants contend have benefited disproportionately from the province's continuing peace negotiations. Gregory Campbell, a member of Parliament who is the city's most prominent Protestant public figure, said: "We have had hundreds of people slaughtered without a single inquiry, and here the nationalists are getting a second one. The Unionist community is absolutely outraged that they have to get this drip-drip news every day of every month for what will be four years."
Unionists, most of them Protestant, want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Nationalists, most of whom are Catholic, want the province to become part of Ireland.
Family members gather each day in the Bloody Sunday Center, in a former bank building across the street from the Guildhall. They generally express confidence in the British judge, Lord Saville, who is joined by judges from Canada and Australia, but they say the true test of whether the hearings will address their long- held hurt turns on the testimony of the soldiers. Lord Saville has lost court actions to compel the soldiers to come here, and this week he announced that the inquiry would move to England this summer to take their testimony there.
"I want to look in their faces and hear what they have to say," said Jean Hegarty, 53, whose brother, Kevin McElhinney, then 17, was shot dead as he tried to crawl to safety in the stairwell of an apartment building. "I want to see how they can reconcile what they have done."