Kingsmill massacre: 'They didn't die in the first round of fire. I still hear them screaming in fear and agony'
Alan Black is counting down the days in dread. On the morning of January 5, the sole survivor of Kingsmill will log the hours, then the minutes, until it is 5.30pm.
“Forty years later,” he says, “and I can think of nothing except ‘How long now did the boys have left to live?’” Alan sees the faces of every one of them on that fateful journey from the Glenanne textile factory, where they worked, to their Bessbrook homes.
“The banter was great,” he adds. “We were arguing about whether Manchester United could challenge Liverpool to win the English First Division. Then a man with a torch waved down our minibus on a deserted part of the road.”
Eleven other armed men with combat jackets and blackened faces jumped out from hedging. The workers were ordered out of the minibus. One gunman asked any Catholic to step forward.
Fearing it was loyalists and the only Catholic worker, Richard Hughes, was to be shot, his Protestant workmate, Walter Chapman, told him to stay silent. But a gunmen recognised Hughes and ordered him to run down the road. Then the shooting started. “For years, I didn’t tell the truth to protect the bereaved,” says Alan. “I said it was over quickly with one round of shooting and nobody suffering.
“But it wasn’t like that. The men didn’t die in the first round of fire. I can still hear them screaming in fear and agony. The gunmen shot everyone again in the head to finish them off as we lay on the ground. After that, there was no screaming, only silence. I knew I was the only one still alive.”
A total of 136 shots were fired. Despite being hit 18 times, Alan survived. “The bullet to the head didn’t penetrate my skull,” he says. “I remember being in awful pain and the rain trickling down my cheeks.
“I was so grateful for the rain because my body felt on fire. I must have been lying on the roadside 30 minutes before the ambulance came. It felt like eternity.”
In Newry’s Daisy Hill hospital, a Catholic priest, Fr Henry Devlin, was waiting. Alan says: “He asked me my religion and if I wanted the last rites. I told him I didn’t as I was a Protestant, but I asked him not to leave me.
“He took my hand and held it all the way to the operating theatre. He visited me every day until I left hospital.”
Alan admits that for a time he did not want to live. “The loss of the boys hit me hard, and I wasn’t even well enough to go to the funerals.
“I lost the will to live and began deteriorating rapidly. A young nurse, Anne Hannaway, from Co Cavan, noticed what was happening. She kept talking about my baby daughter. ‘What about Karen? You have to live for Karen,’ she’d say, and that pulled me through.”
But after his release from hospital, life remained tortuous for Alan. “Taking my two young sons to school, I’d meet the Kingsmill widows and the children who now had no fathers,” he says. “It was too much. I’d go to bed and pull the blankets over my head.”
Alan moved to Scotland for two years. “There was nobody who knew me there; nobody to talk about Kingsmill. I stayed until I felt able to come home and deal with things.”
Today, he is “immensely proud that, despite what happened, Catholics and Protestants live in harmony in Bessbrook”.
Colin Worton’s brother, Kenneth (24), was killed at Kingsmill but he has never been able to ask Alan about his last moments alive.
“I know it’s wrong, but I resented that Alan survived and Kenneth didn’t,” Colin says. “I was 15 when he died, and I had worshipped him.
“Kenneth left a wife and two wee daughters. Raquel, who was only three, said, ‘Will you be my daddy now?’”
His brother’s horrific injuries haunt Colin. “Kenneth had no face left — it was blown away in the gunfire,” he says. “In war, both sides are meant to be evenly matched. But these men had nothing to fight with except their lunchboxes and flasks.
“I used to think the killers had to be on drugs — how else could you do that to other human beings? Kingsmill did stop Catholics being killed in south Armagh, but that doesn’t justify it. The gunmen had no right to play God.”
Cecil Chambers’ youngest brother, Robert (19), was among the dead. “The policeman at the morgue wouldn’t let me see him,” he says. “Another relative went in. He said it was like a butcher’s shop with bodies lying on the floor like slabs of meat.”
“Robert was the last one of us still living at home. His death destroyed my parents. For years, my mother kept cooking him dinner. My father was at the grave morning, noon and night.”
May Quinn’s brother, Bobby Walker (46), was driving the Glenanne minibus. “You couldn’t find a better man,” she says. “Bobby was always helping people — fixing a neighbour’s tractor or cutting a hedge. He had hands for anything. He put in an immersion for me just before he died. To this day, it’s never gone wrong.”
Bobby’s photo hangs in the hallway of May’s Markethill home. “I couldn’t bear to look at it all day in the living room,” she says, “I’d be crying all the time. The pain is as raw as ever.
“I’m 81 and Bobby’s wife died two years ago. The authorities think that when all the victims and bereaved are dead, they’ll be free of the problem of dealing with the past.”
May wants to meet her brother’s killers. “They put 19 bullets in Bobby, a man who never harmed a soul. I’d like to ask them why. They’re getting on in years themselves. I hope their consciences kick in and they come forward and repent.”
Jean Lemmon was waiting for her husband, Joe (49), to come home from work when she heard the ambulances racing to Kingsmill. “When I found out there was a shooting and one survivor, like all the women I prayed it was my man,” she says.
“But Joe didn’t come home. Our daughter, Shirley, was getting married and the white envelopes came through the letterbox. Some were accepting wedding invitations, others were sympathy cards.
“My two grand-daughters were to be flower-girls at the wedding. They had their dresses ready to show Joe that night, but he never got to see them.”
Jean is 92 and has failing eyesight and hearing. “But I hope to still be around for the inquest that has been ordered into Kingsmill,” she says. “I want to hear the truth, however awful. It’s 40 years, but I miss Joe as much as ever. There’s an emptiness in my heart that has never been filled.”