Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

A poignant tale of true devotion forged from the flames of Kegworth air disaster

Stephen in hospital, with his dad Idris and Barry McGuigan
Stephen in hospital, with his dad Idris and Barry McGuigan

The words 'self-pity' and 'sacrifice' have absolutely no place in Yvonne McCoy's vocabulary, even though she has completely devoted herself to looking after her younger brother in the 25 years since he was critically injured in the Kegworth air disaster.

No, the words Yvonne is more likely to use, as she reflects on giving up virtually everything in her life to become a full-time carer for Stephen McCoy, are 'pride' and 'privilege'. And she leaves her listener in no doubt she means it.

"It's been hard, but it's far better than going to put flowers on a grave," says Yvonne, who was getting ready to go out to a nightclub in Toomebridge on that Sunday evening in January 1989, when a newsflash came on the TV about a Boeing 737-400 plane, British Midland Flight 92, crashing in Leicestershire.

Yvonne knew in a heartbeat that it was the flight bringing Stephen back home from Heathrow after a week-long visit to a cousin in London.

The newly-delivered aircraft had crashed on to an embankment of the M1 motorway near Kegworth, as the pilots, Captain Kevin Hunt and First Officer David McClelland, attempted an emergency landing at East Midlands airport after encountering engine problems.

Forty-seven people were killed and Stephen, who was just 16, was the most severely injured of the 74 survivors.

"It seems like only yesterday," says Yvonne, who's one of nine children. "Mammy and Daddy were up at the airport waiting to collect Stephen. Then after a while our priest came to tell us that Stephen was on the plane, but we didn't know what happened to him."

Fr Oliver Kennedy, who died a few months ago, prayed with Yvonne and her frantic siblings, who sat up all night waiting for news. Their parents, Rose and Idris, along with anxious relatives of other passengers on board British Midland Flight 92, were ushered into a private waiting area at Aldergrove as information trickled back slowly from East Midlands airport and nearby hospitals.

The former DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, and his wife, Eileen, arrived during the evening to offer their support.

"He was very good to Mammy and Daddy," says Yvonne. "Dr Paisley promised them he would do all he could to find Stephen. He was a rock to them.

"He overheard Mammy telling Daddy that the priest had gone to say the Rosary with us. And Dr Paisley light-heartedly said that he hoped he would say one for him, too."

Yvonne has been praying for Dr Paisley in the wake of his recent health difficulties and at a function, recently approached him to thank him for what he had done for Stephen and his family.

"I gave him a wee kiss on the cheek, too", adds Yvonne, whose family had had to wait until noon on the day after the crash before they discovered that Stephen was still clinging to life.

"A policeman came and said that Mammy and Daddy should go to England to be with Stephen."

Her brother's injuries were so horrific, his mother Rose almost didn't recognise him as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham. "His head was swollen and the only way she knew him was because of his teeth." says Yvonne. Medics gave Stephen little chance of survival. They even asked his parents for their consent to use his organs in the event of his death, which seemed inevitable.

But Stephen defied the odds. The one-time Antrim and Ulster amateur boxing champion fought like a proverbial trooper, but when he showed little sign of emerging from his coma, doctors prepared to switch off his life-support machine.

That's when the miracle the McCoys had been praying for happened.

The day after he was blessed with a Padre Pio relic flown over from Belfast, a nurse spotted movement from Stephen's big toe. "We were over the moon," says Yvonne. The nurse, Debbie Cross, was a guest of honour at Stephen's 40th birthday party, attended by 300 people, including current and former boxing champions in a Toomebridge hotel.

The McCoys tracked her down via newspaper appeals and Debbie had an emotional reunion with the patient she never forgot. "I thought I was just tired when I saw his toe move, and I got an assistant to make sure I wasn't imagining it," she said. "The doctors realised he was alive and, a few days later, there was a flicker in his eye, too. I was overjoyed."

At the birthday party, other guests included paramedic Terry Whotton, who drove Stephen to hospital after he was pulled from the aircraft wreckage, and Sister Chris Phillips, the nurse who liaised with the McCoy family as the teenager battled for life.

It had been a long, arduous struggle. Stephen spent three years in hospital in England and Northern Ireland before he was allowed to return home.

During those years, Stephen's family took it in turns to be at his bedside. And he never spent a single moment alone. That's still the case whenever he has to go into hospital nowadays.

Yvonne remembers the uncertainty of it all as those days after the crash turned into weeks and months during the agonising vigil.

"You didn't know what kind of person you would be bringing home – if he even survived and came out of the coma."

Stephen was left brain-damaged, paralysed, wheelchair-bound and his speech was severely limited, though he can and does make himself understood, and his impish sense of humour is never far from the surface.

Yvonne says the hardest part of his recovery was seeing the wheelchair for the first time in the hospital. "We realised that Stephen was never going to be the same."

Stephen now lives in a specially designed house just outside Toome, built with part of the £1.42m compensation awarded to him in November 1995.

His needs are extensive and Yvonne has been his full-time carer for 22 years, after giving up her job as an auxiliary nurse in an old people's home.

"I didn't have to think twice about it," says 44-year-old Yvonne, who scoffs at the very mention of that word sacrifice. "He's good to work with. He's happy and he's good company and the only thing he doesn't like is getting shaved."

Yvonne gets Stephen washed and dressed every morning before giving him his breakfast and his medication.

Stephen still has major medical issues and only last year needed surgery. Yvonne oversees physiotherapy for Stephen in a fully equipped physio room in the house and in the summertime takes him out to the cinema, to the shops and to visit relations. He's still passionate about boxing and attends all the big fights in Belfast, including Carl Frampton's recent bouts in the Odyssey.

But, in the winter, things are more difficult, as the cold forces Stephen indoors because of fears that he might get infections.

The scaling back of services at the Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt has been a setback for the McCoys. "We always brought him there and they were wonderful with him, because they knew his case history," says Yvonne.

Stephen was a huge punk fan before the accident and still loves The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. "He could nearly tell you every word of every one of their songs. And two of the Undertones, Michael Bradley and Billy Doherty, were at his surprise birthday party," says Yvonne.

Champion jockey AP McCoy, who's also from the Toomebridge area but isn't related to Stephen, sent him a video message wishing him a happy birthday.

Unlike some of the other Kegworth survivors, Stephen has flown regularly since the crash and has been to Lourdes more than 20 times.

But he does have reservations about flying and once turned down the opportunity to go to see his footballing heroes Liverpool, because, he said, "the last time I went to England I came home in a wheelchair". Yvonne adds: "His faith is very important to him. It's very strong. He can't go to Mass in the winter, but our priest comes in to give him Communion. And Stephen says his prayers every night."

In recent times, too, Stephen has also received requests from people to offer prayers on their behalf. "They think that God listens to him," says Yvonne.

Only occasionally do Stephen's spirits falter, according to Yvonne, who reaches for the TV remote every time a particular Guinness advertisement comes on the box.

It's the one where a group of able-bodied men are playing wheelchair basketball to show their solidarity with a disabled friend. The ad upset Stephen, who wondered if he would be able to walk if he drank Guinness, even though he's a Pioneer who shuns alcohol.

"I had to explain that they were just supporting their mate, but Stephen says he wants to walk some day. I tell him that you never know what might happen."

The future is a worry for Yvonne and her family, who are concerned about Stephen's long-term care. But Yvonne has already said: "As long as there's a breath in our bodies, we will look after him. We count our blessings he's still with us."

His mother, Rose, once told me: "Thank God we have him. There's many a mother doesn't have their son through some other tragedy."

The McCoys still keep in touch with other families affected by the Kegworth disaster. Some of them will mark next week's 25th anniversary of the crash by attending a memorial service. Others will have their own private thoughts and commemorations.

One man, who paid a public tribute to his rescuers on that fateful night, was writer Alan Johnston, from Strangford, who was pulled from the plane's broken fuselage by a lifeboat crew returning home from the London Boat Show in a minibus.

Alan recently invited one of the crew, Barrie Brigham, to the launch of his photographic book about the weather, 'Should I bring an umbrella?' It was the first time they'd met.

"It was very moving," said Alan. "I'd only heard about the lifeboat men's involvement in saving me a short time after completing the book, and I dedicated two extra pages to the wonderful work of the RNLI."

Along with other survivors and relatives, Alan was a central figure in the Air Safety Action Group, set up to campaign for improvements in safety measures after Kegworth.

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