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Horrors of Ballygawley still vivid in memories

By Rebecca Black

Published 09/11/2015

Eight soldiers died in the Ballygawley bus attack
Eight soldiers died in the Ballygawley bus attack

It was a dark night on August 20, 1988 as an unmarked bus made its way from the Ballygawley roundabout towards Omagh.

On board were 36 soldiers of the Light Infantry Division in high spirits returning to their base following a short holiday back home to England, having enjoyed the final few pints they would be allowed for several months during service.

At the back of the bus was Liverpudlian James Leatherbarrow, proudly wearing a new leather jacket, a gift from the fiancee he was soon to marry.

Down this jacket, and down the jackets of many of the other soldiers, were stuffed scores of cheap teddy bears from a coin-operated machine at Aldergrove which they had cleaned out after discovering a malfunction that gave them unlimited goes for 50p. Shortly after going through the roundabout they passed an identical bus, transporting members of the Londonderry Star of the Valley band home from a parade in Portadown as they stopped for a comfort break.

The band's bus was around half a mile behind when the soldiers' vehicle was blown up by a remote controlled device, believed to have been 200lb of explosives stuffed into a bin at the side of the road.

William White and his wife Margaret lived close to the scene of the blast. The impact caused the house to shudder, and then all they could hear were the screams.

"I went down with a torch into the darkness and first thing I saw was a man with his face blown off. I ran back up to the house and called an ambulance. I told them there had been a major disaster and to send a fleet of ambulances," he said.

Local UUP councillor Allan Rainey also heard the blast and called his local GP, Dr Clifford McCord, to come to help.

But the very first responders were members of the band.

Barney O'Donnell from the band's bus saw a flash of light but did not hear any explosion.

"We didn't hear anything, just saw the flash," he said. "I was one of the first off the bus, we thought it was a car crash first but then realised something wasn't quite right."

Barney, along with Charlie Turner, told the women and younger members - including an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old - to stay on their bus after seeing the carnage.

They saw a decapitated body, then met the driver who was holding the bottom of his face to stop it collapsing from his injuries, then there were the screams of agony and what they termed the smell of death.

The men, along with the late Kingsley Curry, tried to helped as many as they could, but most were dead already.

Then they heard moans coming from under the bus and realised more were trapped underneath. They lifted it up and rescued James and several others from the wreckage.

Kingsley called his wife Grace to help James. "First thing I did when I got off the bus was drop to my knees and pray to God to give me strength to do what I needed to do," she said.

"Initially I was trying to help a soldier, but the paramedic came over and closed his eyes. Next thing my husband shouted for me to come and help James."

Donna Patton, who was just 16, nursed James with his head on her lap. "I remember him telling me, 'Keep me alive, I am meant to be getting married in two weeks' time'. I always wondered did he get married," she said.

James recalls when he was brought to hospital a nurse unzipped his jacket and being alarmed at all the teddy bears falling out, now almost unrecognisable as bloody lumps.

"I think those teddies were what saved his life," said Grace.

Belfast Telegraph

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