'My son James took his own life because he thought he had let me down by not discovering the bomb on the bus... I still haven't got over his passing'
Former UDR soldier Ernie Wilson talks to Ivan Little
Thirty years ago this week the IRA blew up the bus Ernie Wilson was driving, seriously injuring a schoolgirl and leaving her friends including Arlene Foster shocked and hurt. Now, in an astonishing interview, he recalls the horror of that day... and reveals the personal tragedy that was to follow.
Ernie Wilson still finds it hard to believe that a teenage Arlene Foster and 16 other children weren't killed in the IRA bomb attack that ripped apart the school bus he was driving in Fermanagh 30 years ago.
"I didn't think a mouse could have got out alive from the wreckage. It was nothing short of a miracle that no one died," says former UDR soldier Ernie, who was the target of the Provo device planted on his bus.
The IRA was roundly condemned for the "insanity" of blowing up a vehicle that it knew would be used by children, and it later spoke of its regret that a civilian was injured.
Ernie is 83 now but his memories are still razor-sharp of an "ordinary" summer day - June 28, 1988 - that was to change his life for ever and that was to rob him of his son James, who took his own life a year after the atrocity.
Ernie, who has been left bereft after the death in November of his beloved wife of 60 years May, won't do anything special to mark the anniversary of the bus bomb.
"I hadn't even realised it was 30 years," he says. "It certainly doesn't seem that long ago. In many ways it's just like yesterday. I still think about it all the time and will do until the day I close my eyes.
"I will also be careful about what I do in the week of the anniversary. I might still be a target."
Three decades back in his UDR days Ernie, who's originally from Ballinamallard, was warned by police that he was on an IRA death list.
And, as a former B Special during the IRA's border campaign in the Fifties and Sixties, when he survived two bomb attacks, he appreciated only too well the risks that came with the territory of being in the UDR during the Provo onslaught in later years.
For a while he was escorted by the police on his bus run, and he had to move house from Lisnaskea to Maguiresbridge
But Ernie, who served with the three Graham brothers, who were all murdered by the IRA, knew something was really wrong when he was called to another meeting with a top RUC officer and spotted a cup of tea and biscuits on the table.
He says: "That was a sign that it was serious and an inspector who was a distant relation of mine told me the RUC had information that I was going to be shot inside the fortnight."
But the IRA sprang a bomb trap instead.
James usually helped him to check his bus for booby-traps in the school grounds in Maguiresbridge, where his dad parked it.
But even a trained security force eye would have been hard pressed to find the bomb, which had been hidden in the chassis of the bus which his dad drove for the local education board.
Unaware of the deadly device, Ernie, who'd worked on the buses in Belfast after leaving the B Specials, drove to Lisnaskea to collect his young Protestant and Catholic passengers, including the former DUP First Minister Arlene Foster, who was then a lower sixth pupil at the Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen.
"Sometimes there could have been upwards of 70 youngsters on board but it was exam time and a lot of children were studying at home," says Ernie, who was approaching Sylvan Hill when the bomb exploded
"It was like a flash of lightning. I was blinded and deafened. I thought my legs had been blown off, but when my sight started to return I realised they were still there," he recalls.
The brake pedals hadn't been functioning after the blast but he managed to bring the vehicle to a halt by pulling on a handbrake. What he saw behind him shook him.
"A lot of the seats and the windows weren't there and the floor was gone," he explains. "I didn't think a mouse could have got out alive."
Ernie knew the 17-year-old Arlene and her family and he saw her trying to get the rest of the girls off the bus.
Most of them had escaped with minor injuries and shock. But Arlene's companion Gillian Latimer, who had been sitting beside her, was clearly in a bad way suffering with extensive wounds to her arm.
And even though Ernie was dazed and injured himself, he clambered through the wreckage to help Gillian.
He'd been trained in first aid and he gave Gillian the kiss of life, ignoring people outside urging him to lift her and pass her out of the bus.
"I think she died a couple of times and I wasn't going to move her until she started to breathe again," he says.
"Eventually she looked at me with these big wide eyes and there wasn't a cheep out of her," says Ernie.
He later staggered off the bus and wandered down the street where he met a shocked James. He was rushed to hospital where worried medics worked on his head and his eyes before his daughter Joy, a district nurse, pointed out to them that his aching legs had been severely burnt.
Ernie's injuries healed, but an unexpected tragedy was looming.
James, who had been very close to his dad, had blamed himself for not discovering the bomb on his father's bus. And Ernie believes that's why he took his own life.
"James thought he had let me down. But he hadn't. I still haven't got over his passing," he says.
"I am not the same man that I used to be."
Ernie's hair turned white overnight after James's death, but he stayed in the UDR until 1992.
However, he gave up bus driving, taking on other roles in schools like caretaking, though he did have one last encounter with the bus that had been blown up by the IRA.
After it was repaired in Ballymena at a reported cost of £28,000, He was asked if he would like to drive it back to Fermanagh.
"I put it in a board garage and never went near it again," he reveals.
The death of his wife last November hit him hard. He met her on his very first night on patrol with the B Specials in Lisnaskea. "She was coming home from a Christian Endeavour meeting with her brother. I started talking to her and my colleague spoke to her brother and May and I ended up getting married," he says.
His career with the B Specials was eventful. He was inside Lisnaskea police station when it was badly damaged by a bomb, but he escaped injury.
He also survived an attempt to lure him and his colleagues into an ambush on a country road where two creamery can bombs had been left for their passing patrol, but they were found before they went off.
After the bus bomb and James's death, Ernie says he was on the brink.
He adds: "Only for May and my other children I think I would have caved in. My wife had a very strong faith and I turned back to God too. Without Him I wouldn't be here today."
A youthful Arlene Foster, whose father Johnny was injured in an IRA shooting in 1979, gave television interviews immediately after the bus blast and she has often repeated that the explosion could have resulted in the slaughter of schoolchildren.
Ernie says he and the former First Minister are still close. "She calls to see me from time to time," he adds.
A year ago a Financial Times profile of Mrs Foster quoted "her friend" Ernie Wilson as saying: "She hugs me every time we meet. I don't think she gives too many of those."
But as for Mrs Foster's politics and her attendance at the Ulster GAA final in Clones at the weekend, he says he prefers to keep his own counsel.
But he will admit that he wasn't surprised to see his erstwhile bus 'passenger' becoming a prominent public figure.
He says: "She's a smart girl. She knows what she's doing. She's from Fermanagh after all!"
Measuring his words with equal care, he says he has "an idea" about the identities of the individuals who were behind the bus bombing, but he doesn't know for sure.
And he insists it's not his place to forgive the bombers. "There's only one person who can forgive and that is God," he says.
"All those men will one day meet their maker and they will pay for what they've done. And I hope they do. If I saw the bombers in the street, I would walk on past them. I wouldn't have anything to do with them.
"But I would hold nothing against them. I hold no grudges because that gets you nowhere. I have got on with my life."
After the bombing he was prescribed tablets by his doctor. He explains: "There was no talking or counselling in those days but the impact on my family was devastating."
He admits that he felt intensely bitter after the attack, but he says: "That's gone. I have no bitterness now against anyone. My faith got me out of that."
However, Ernie, who was awarded the British Empire Medal for saving Gillian's life, isn't happy with the way that victims and survivors have been treated after the ceasefires.
"I think of myself as a victim and a survivor," he says. "And I think we have been forgotten about by the authorities. But campaigners like Kenny Donaldson and the South East Fermanagh Forum victims group have looked after me well."
He was recently among a group of six victims who along with the DUP's Gregory Campbell and Gary Middleton met Labour's shadow Secretary of State Tony Lloyd in Londonderry. The politician was said to have been deeply moved by the Fermanagh man's account of the Lisnaskea bombing and his son's suicide.
With a humility that says much about Ernie Wilson, he insists he felt "embarrassed" that people were putting such emphasis on his story, adding: "There were people at the meeting who had lost loved ones and suffered far worse than me. I was sorry that my story took away from what they had to say about their experiences."