Colin Bell: 'Your creed or colour doesn't matter, we'll help any family'
Joanne Sweeney talks to Colin Bell, who runs the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, which helps families bring back the remains of their loved ones who die overseas.
Q. The Trust made the news again last week, with the deaths of three young men from Northern Ireland in Perth. How hard is that for you to deal with?
A. We've been up to our eyes, really. I've only been in touch with Gerard Bradley's family myself, as the Claddagh Association in Australia is a wonderful organisation that will make all the arrangements and all we will have to do is pay for it. So it's a good bit off our plate.
We know exactly what the families are going through and it's a terrible situation. But we are doing everything we can to get their loved ones home. Our hearts go out to them.
Q. Tell us how you heard the news that your son Kevin had been killed in New York?
A. We were told about it about 11.30am on Sunday morning, June 16, 2013. All the family were coming round for a celebration, as it had been my 60th birthday the night before. My wife Eithne called me into the living room, where our friends Vinnie and Caroline Toner were sitting.
Kevin had gone out to New York with his friend Seamy Toner, so he had got in touch with his parents after Kevin died, so that they could go round and break the news to us. But as soon as Eithne saw them driving up to the house, she just knew it was bad. It was very tough, as you can imagine. We didn't know what had hit us, but that's when the people of Newry stepped in and helped.
Q. What had happened?
A. Kevin had come home early on Sunday morning and got out of a taxi and was hit by a speeding white van, which drove on. Then another car drove over him and it drove on. He was killed instantly, which in itself was a blessing to us. Then, eight months later, our nephew Paul Lambert, who was 34 and Kevin's cousin, was knocked down and killed in San Francisco, so we know all about losing people suddenly when they die abroad.
Q. Have the drivers ever been convicted for Kevin's death?
A. No, and to be honest, it's not something we are going to let eat at us. It won't bring Kevin back. There was a conviction in Paul's case.
Q. So you don't feel the need for justice for Kevin?
A. Not at all. It won't bring him back.
Q. How was the KBRT formed?
A. It was really Newry born and bred. The support that we received from the people of Newry when Kevin died was just incredible. Actually, it was formed even before Kevin was buried.
When news broke that Kevin had died, Newry went crazy. It was just the most amazing thing. People started to fundraise right away. There was a quiz organised in the Canal Court Hotel on Tuesday night and that raised £42,000 in one night. There was a fun run and walk on Thursday night which attracted more people than the local marathon and that raised £18,000. It was just incredible, the support we received from both sides of the community.
Q. Did you use the money to bring Kevin back home?
A. No, we didn't actually need the money for taking Kevin's body home, as his employers paid for it. But I told people to keep fundraising as Kevin wouldn't be the last. The idea was in my head already then and I knew we would use it to help other families who were visited by similar tragedies. So that was the birth of it. Money was raised in New York and Australia, where Kevin had stayed and was well remembered. We ended up with £150,000 in the space of under two weeks.
Q. It seemed like Newry also mourned the loss of a son?
A. Absolutely, there's no doubt about it. Kevin's death struck a real chord with people, as he was a really big character. He loved life and loved the craic. Kevin had a lot of friends and a lot of people knew him.
Q. Which was the first family you helped after Kevin?
A. That was a young lad, Stephen Clifford from Carryduff, who fell through a roof in Thailand. In the early days, we would have approached families if we heard about a tragedy, but more often or not they now contact us.
Q. How hard was it for you to be suddenly so close to a similar tragedy of a young man?
A. Well, we cried, as his death was only two weeks after Kevin's. I remember sitting and talking with Mrs Clifford. I think it's because we have been in their shoes that we can relate to the family. They know that we have gone through it too, so I think that helps.
Q. How many people's bodies has the Trust arranged to be brought back home?
A. It's probably around 140 at the moment. Apart from Joe McDermott and Gerard Bradley, who were killed last week in a work accident, there were another three deaths in Perth.
There was the young Lurgan man Alan Haughey, who was killed in the car crash, a young girl from Dublin who died from organ failure after getting a virus and there was a young lad from Laytown in Co Meath, who was killed in a work accident when he fell off a ladder. We are still working to get Winston Samuels from Antrim home, the man who was murdered in Jamaica, and another man from Alberta, Canada, one from New York and one from Sweden.
Q. You don't make a distinction between north and south, with the families you help?
A. It doesn't matter what your creed or colour is, or where you live, we will be there to help any family in Ireland in that situation. At one point, a press report said that the Trust was a GAA charity. We may be a GAA family, but we are not a GAA charity. We help everyone we can and get money from all sides of the community.
Q. How much does repatriation cost?
A. It really depends on the country and if it is an English-speaking country. It's between 10-12,000 Australian dollars, which equates to around £6,000. It's much the same from the US, but it can depend on whether it's east coast or west coast. It's not the figures that people seem to think it is. It's around £5,000 from Thailand or Cambodia, and from Europe, it's between £3,000 and 4,000.
Q. Does working with all of these deaths reopen your own wounds over losing Kevin?
A. Yes, it does sometimes. There were nine deaths in one week. We have never gone a week since June 2013 without working on at least one repatriation, but mostly it can be two or three. With the nine, I was just shattered by it all. There were three to be brought home from Perth alone, and two of them had died by suicide. It just all came on top of me, and that was really rough.
Q. Tell us about the repatriation process?
A. When a family contacts me, either by text, email or phone call, I find out where the body is and if it is an English-speaking country, I can generally make the calls myself.
What has really helped is that now every embassy and consulate in the world knows about the Trust. I can contact them and get details for their preferred undertaker. Then I contact the undertaker and make arrangements to get the body home. The undertaker makes the arrangements and I organise the payment. In a non-English speaking county, I will work with a specialist repatriation company and their agents will make the arrangements.
Q. Where do your funds come from?
A. All of our money comes from fundraising events and they are going on all over the island every weekend. We are so lucky, the money just keeps coming in. But as quick as it does, it goes out again to pay for another repatriation.
Q. Have you ever had to turn a family away because you didn't have the money?
A. Never. Some families we help like to fundraise afterwards, because they are helping the next family after them, and the one after that.
Q. Is that a great comfort to you, knowing that somehow the money always keeps coming in?
A. Yes, of course. We are not an over-religious family but we feel that it was why Kevin was put in this earth, to help other people, so it gives us some help in accepting his death.
Q. What problems have you encountered?
A. It took us nearly a year to get charitable status, as the Charity Commission needed evidence of a proven need and that would have meant means-testing people. But there was no way, if someone had contacted us, and said that their son had died overseas, that we were going to ask them how much money they earned.
Q. What are the main causes of death for those you bring home?
A. Murders would be very unusual and we have only helped three families due to this. However, the numbers of suicides is very worrying and significant, although most of the deaths would be due to accidents or natural causes. There's a different and sad story behind every call we get.
We have brought people back from America, Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina and New Zealand and all over Europe. We get a lot of requests from the greater Belfast area, and Monaghan and Cavan have been very badly hit.
Q. How long, on average, does it take to bring a body back home?
A. In the case of someone who has been murdered, it can take two to three weeks, depending on the timings of the post mortem and autopsy. You would be very pleased to get someone back in a week.
Generally, it takes about 10 days, but in our own case Kevin was killed on a Sunday morning and we had him home in the house from New York on the following Wednesday morning.
We were helped by the fact that my wife's cousin lived in Manhattan. She identified the body and wouldn't take no for an answer. When she went somewhere to get something signed, she waited there until it was.
Q. Do you go to receive the bodies as they come back?
A. No, not at all. We just arrange it, but if it was for a family close to me or someone we had come to know, I might go. We are happy if we get the body back to Ireland.
Q. Has repatriation work helped you as a family in dealing with your own tragedy?
A. We have struck up some amazing friendships from meeting families such as the Bradys in Sligo and the Keiths in Cavan and, more locally, Alan Drennan, who's a really lovely man. (Mr Drennan's 21-year-old son Alan was found dead in his bed while on holiday in Ibiza in July). It's kind of like a club, I suppose, but not one you would want to be in. There is so much empathy and sympathy among us, as we have all gone through the same thing.
Q. The Drennan family and friends recently raised £8,000 for the Trust. Is it normal for families who are helped to do so?
A. A lot of a families do, but it's not that we are looking for them to do it. For some, it gives them a focus after the death.
Q. Could you tell us more about your family?
A. Kevin was one of our second set of twins, him and Brendan. Eithne and I were married ten months and we had two babies, twins Sean and Ciara. When we were married for 23 months, we had four babies under 13 months and went on to have seven children under the age of five, with Eamon, Conor and Maeve coming later on.
Q. Are you worried that now you and the family have become so involved in this, that you can't walk away from it now?
A. There's no question of ever wanting to get out of it. It really is a privilege to be able to help people. When somebody gets the terrible news and they don't know where to turn, where to go, or who to see, it seems like a real mess. So if somebody can come in and help you, it's a good thing.
Q. Do you ever worry about the personal toll on yourself of running the Trust?
A. I'm happy to do it and it's a privilege to help people. It's keeping Kevin's name alive.
Q. You are not the only family member involved in the Trust, are you?
A. All of the family are involved in some way and often are asked to go along to fundraising events to represent the Trust. Conor does the books and another friend, Damian Ruddy, acts as a trustee.
Q. What are you proud of about the Trust?
A. We are proud that it is a family-run charity and no one gets a wage out of it. That's the way we hope to keep it. That's the ethos of it and one that seems to work with other families that we help.
It's about families helping other families and it's important that we keep it at this level. We are confident that the children will still take the charity on over the coming years.
Q. What do you think Kevin would have made of the Trust?
A. He would have loved it. He used to tell us that he always knew he was going to be famous and, funny enough, it's turned out that he was right.
Q. Was he the most lively one of your children then?
A. You could say that; he just loved the craic and he had great friends. He was always doing stuff for the craic, loved his football, was up to everything and went everywhere. That's just the way he lived his life.
Q. Can you tell us about the Kevin Bell football jersey and its journey throughout the world?
A. It was only about eight months ago that we decided to ask O'Neills to make us a Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust GAA football shirt to help raise awareness.
But the shirts have taken off unbelievably and are appearing all over the world, such as Machu Picchu in Peru, as people take photographs and post them on our Facebook page.
Lisa Orsi's sister Shannon posted a picture of her wearing one in her honour on the Great Wall of China We have now sold nearly 2,000 of them.
For further information on the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust visit http://kevinbellrepatriationtrust.com/ and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kevinbellrepatriationtrust/?fref=ts