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Stephen McCoy: a Kegworth survivor's story

As a 16-year-old, he was pulled critically injured from the wreckage of the plane crash. Now a remarkable new BBC1 NI True North documentary, to be broadcast next week, will show the Toome man, who uses a wheelchair, taking his first steps thanks to a bionic suit, writes Ivan Little

Comforted by faith: Kegworth air disaster survivor Stephen McCoy
Comforted by faith: Kegworth air disaster survivor Stephen McCoy
Stephen McCoy with sister Yvonne

Miracle man Stephen McCoy, who was left a quadriplegic after the Kegworth air disaster 30 years ago, has taken a huge step in his remarkable recovery thanks to a futuristic robotic device that has helped him walk again.

The plucky former boxing champion, from Toome, who has battled for life against all the odds, had his family in tears after he gamely stood on his own two feet and inched forward in an exoskeleton - a space-age bionic suit.

Stephen almost died in the Kegworth disaster on January 8, 1989, when a British Midland plane travelling from Heathrow to Belfast crashed on the M1 motorway just short of the runway at East Midlands airport. Forty seven of the 126 passengers were killed and 74 were injured.

The newly delivered aircraft had crashed onto an embankment as pilots Captain Kevin Hunt and First Officer David McClelland attempted an emergency landing after encountering engine problems.

Stephen's parents rushed to Belfast International Airport, desperate to find out news about their son, who was 16 at the time. In a special room set aside for relatives, the late DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, offered his support and prayers.

It wasn't until the next day that the family were told that Stephen had been found with such severe injuries that doctors were pessimistic about his chances of survival.

The medics were later about to switch off Stephen's life support machine when a nurse noticed a twitch in his big toe and the doctors changed their minds.

Stephen, who was returning home after spending a week with a cousin in London, was left brain-damaged, paralysed down one side and in a wheelchair.

But buoyed by an insatiable zest for life and an unshakeable faith, the now 46-year-old never stopped believing that things could and would get better.

A moving new BBC One Northern Ireland documentary, My Fight to Live, captures Stephen's inspirational spirit and shows how the former boxer keeps fighting in the hope of a new dawn.

He was in a coma for six months and it wasn't until three years after the crash that he was allowed to go home, where his sister, Yvonne, has been his full-time carer ever since.

Yvonne gave up her job as a nursing auxiliary in an old people's home to look after Stephen in a specially designed house funded by a £1.42m compensation award.

She spends 12 hours a day with Stephen, washing and dressing him, preparing his meals, giving him his medication and overseeing his physiotherapy in a purpose-built exercise room.

Scarred landscape: the wreckage of the British Midland plane that crashed on January 8, 1989
Scarred landscape: the wreckage of the British Midland plane that crashed on January 8, 1989

"It's not a job," says Yvonne. "It's more friendship, with laughing and giggling. We are happy in each other's company. Stephen is very positive about life. He's a pleasure to be with."

The cameras are with Stephen and his family as he goes for a preliminary screening to assess if he could use the exoskeleton, which he's told is designed to make it easier for people like him to stand up and to take a step.

The initial tests are exhaustive and exhausting for Stephen, but he passes them all and physio Kim Gregg says she believes he is ready for the exoskeleton.

Devoted family: Stephen in hospital with his dad Idris and Barry McGuigan
Devoted family: Stephen in hospital with his dad Idris and Barry McGuigan

After several weeks, Yvonne prepares Stephen for the big day when he tries out the device for real with his family looking on and willing him on to walk once more.

Physio Kim fits him into the exoskeleton and encourages him to let the machine do all the hard work of lifting him onto his feet and allowing him to take a step at a time. "You cannot fall," she reassures him.

Stephen tells Kim that the movement isn't scary and he completes a short circuit with the aid of the exoskeleton. After 151 steps, Stephen finishes with a smile while his family members shed a tear at what he is achieving and tell him they're proud of him.

Stephen as a young boxer
Stephen as a young boxer

Kim says Stephen will make an ideal patient and shows a lot of potential for improvement on the exoskeleton.

"That's pretty good going for a first time," she adds.

Yvonne says the family are ecstatic: "Hopefully the exercise he has had on the skeleton legs will continue and he will get better and better."

Asked how he feels, giving the experience marks out of 10, Stephen replies: "The full 10."

Stephen's speech is slow and faltering but, with a little patience, his listeners can understand what he is trying to say.

Stephen is filmed visiting a favourite childhood haunt on the West Strand at Portrush, where he remembers running along the beach, playing with a bucket and spade. "Happy days," he says.

Stephen as a young punk rocker
Stephen as a young punk rocker

But in the documentary producers use animated sequences to delve deeper into his dreams and hopes, his fears and his frustrations.

Despite what has happened to him, Stephen is a devout Christian whose faith is everything to him. He has travelled more than 20 times to Lourdes - by plane - and the documentary makers follow him on one of his pilgrimages.

Yvonne says Stephen's faith has always been strong. She adds: "The highlight of his year has always been getting to Lourdes.

Stephen using the exoskeleton with his sister Yvonne
Stephen using the exoskeleton with his sister Yvonne

"Every year he goes to Lourdes he has to get on a plane but he's very brave. He always says, 'This plane is not going to crash', because he puts his faith in God. He has no fear."

However, Stephen did once turn down the chance to fly to Liverpool to see his footballing heroes at Anfield, reckoning that the last time he'd gone on a plane to England, he'd come home in a wheelchair.

Yvonne says Stephen goes to Lourdes expecting a miracle. "He wants a miracle. He has great faith. He really wants a big miracle - the big miracle of being able to walk again. He has never ever been sad and I think Lourdes has given him a lovely acceptance of his life."

The programme also includes pre-crash video footage of Stephen as a boxer, a sport in which he was all-Ireland champion at youth level.

The documentary shows the Carl Frampton fan visiting his old boxing club, All Saints in Ballymena, where he catches up with friends, including ex-champion Eamonn Loughran, who says that Stephen was one of the best boxers in the club, which also has actor Liam Neeson among its former fighters.

On Stephen's 40th birthday Eamonn and a number of other boxers were among the guests of honours at a special party in a Co Antrim hotel.

Also there were Undertones Michael Bradley and Billy Doherty, whose presence reflected Stephen's love of punk music in the days before the crash when he had blond, spiky hair and wore tartan trousers.

A surprise guest at the party, traced after internet appeals, was Debbie Cross, the nurse who noticed the movement in Stephen's toe. Other members of the medical team from Nottingham also joined in the birthday celebrations in Toome.

At the party a video message was played from AP McCoy, the champion jockey who has also met him a number of times in person, once when Stephen cheered on his namesake riding in a donkey derby in Moneyglass.

Stephen still faces immense medical challenges and he has needed surgery in the past for issues that arise from the crash.

Yvonne tries to take him out and about as much as she can, but the winter presents a range of problems, especially as there are fears that Stephen might get infections.

A priest comes to Stephen's home during the colder months to give him communion, and Yvonne says that her brother never misses his prayers before going to sleep.

Stephen's family worry about what the future holds for him.

But Yvonne is on record as saying: "As long as there's a breath in our bodies we will look after him. We count our blessings that he's still with us."

True North - Stephen McCoy: My Fight To Live, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, January 7, 10.40pm

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