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Dragged from the wreckage of Ballygawley coach bomb 27 years ago, now James is finally able to get back on a bus

Exclusive by Rebecca Black

Published 07/10/2015

James Leatherbarrow with his wife Emma
James Leatherbarrow with his wife Emma
James Leatherbarrow on duty in Fermanagh just a few months before the bus bomb
The wreckage of the coach in which the soldiers were travelling
Eight crosses placed at the side of the road in tribute to those who died in the 1988 attack

A survivor of the Ballygawley bus bomb has travelled on a coach for the first time in the almost 30 years since the blast.

Former soldier James Leatherborrow (48) was just 21 in 1988 when he was seriously injured after the IRA blew up the bus he had been travelling in along with 35 colleagues in The Light Infantry regiment from Aldergrove to Lisanelly barracks in Omagh.

Eight soldiers, all aged between 18 and 21, were killed in the outrage.

Mr Leatherbarrow suffered a broken back and perforated eardrums.

He says the trauma of the bombing has haunted him since.

It caused him to leave the Army and forge a new career as a long distance lorry driver.

His painful memories also prevented the Liverpool man from getting on a bus again until earlier this month - 27 years after the atrocity.

Mr Leatherbarrow said the big moment came after he received an invitation to the Northern Ireland Veterans' Day parade at the National Arboretum in Lichfield, and he realised the only way he could get there was by coach.

"My kids had always wanted me to get the bus into town with them, but they understood," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I mean, the last bus I got ended up 'bang', but I always thought one day I am going to surprise everyone.

"It was a little bit scary, but I knew if I wanted to go to this, it was the only way. I just thought today's the day."

Mr Leatherbarrow said even as he climbed on board the bus, even the smell of the interior brought back memories, but with the support of his wife Emma he sat in the front seat and his anxiety eased.

"As soon as I got on the coach, the smell of the coach started flashbacks," he explained.

"I saw the seat at the back where I had been sitting when the bomb went off.

"But all the passengers on the bus were lovely and knew of the situation; they had suffered in the past too.

"The driver was well briefed and I knew the bus would stop if I wanted it to.

"It was actually easier than I thought it would be, after I got on the bus, then by the time I got the coach back I even enjoyed it. It has opened a new chapter in my life."

After that bus trip, Mr Leatherbarrow then took his children - a 12-year-old son and 10-year-old twin girls - into town last weekend.

"They looked up and said: "We are proud of you. daddy'. It was an emotional moment," he revealed.

Mr Leatherbarrow also opened up about his memories of the night of the bomb on August 29, 1988, and how a suspicious man tried to board the soldiers' bus at the airport.

"As we were sitting on the bus at Aldergrove, this man got on asking was it the Belfast bus, it was blue and white like the Ulsterbuses. The driver said 'no, get off'," he said. "Then he got on again, looked around and told us: 'You are going to die today, soldier scum'.

"We were used to getting spat at and death threats - it comes with the territory - so that was that. Then as the bus drove on we were followed by this dark-coloured car. Sometimes it disappeared, but then reappeared again.

"When we got to Ballygawley we had to go along the A5. It was on this road that suddenly the car sped up and overtook us, then next thing, bang, we were blown about 200m up the road.

"I don't remember much from the explosion, I remember lying under the bus and people lifted it up and dragged me out. Then we were in the hospital, all of us were lying in a row, and I remember shouting names to ask everyone if they were OK. To some of the names no one responded. They never told us until the next day how many died."

The former soldier said it was only after the bomb he recognised the man who got on the bus at the airport as one of the terrorists involved in the blast. He was killed by the SAS shortly afterwards.

Mr Leatherbarrow said the violence was "pretty strong" when he served here with the Army, but said he enjoyed some aspects, such the comaraderie with his colleagues. He had not been back to Northern Ireland until three years ago when he came for a memorial service for the victims of the bus bomb.

"It was different being back, not working. I could see how beautiful the country is," he said.

"I no longer think all Northern Irish people are bad. It used to be whenever I heard the accent it scared me. Now I know how friendly people are there."

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