Sixteen-year-old Stephen McCoy got on the plane from London to Belfast after his first trip away from home in 1989 — a champion fighter in the boxing ring.
Now, 20 years after surviving the horrific Kegworth plane crash which left him in a coma for six months, paralysed on his left side, brain damaged and wheelchair-bound — he has proven to be a real fighter in life too.
His promising future as a boxer after winning All-Ireland, Ulster and Co Antrim titles was ended abruptly, but his family today says it is a “miracle” he even survived the crash which took the lives of 47 people and injured 74.
Stephen, now aged 36, lives with his parents Rose and Idris in Toomebridge and is cared for by his sister Yvonne, a former nurse in a home for the elderly.
Along with other members of Stephen’s family they make sure he has the 24-hour care, love and attention he needs.
It’s two decades ago since he got on the flight which changed his life and his family’s forever.
Yvonne, then aged 19, was getting ready to go clubbing when she heard about the crash on a newsflash.
“I had a horrible feeling that Stephen was on it. Mummy and daddy had gone to pick him up at the airport and had been away a long time,” she said.
Their parents along with other anxious loved ones of passengers were ushered into the airport’s VIP room where they were told who was on the plane.
“People were just so upset, especially as no one knew who was alive or badly hurt, or even what hospital they were in,” said Yvonne.
Meanwhile Yvonne and the rest of the family were at home waiting for news. “It was midday the next day when a constable came and told us Stephen had been found alive — it had been an awful wait,” she said.
Stephen’s parents immediately got on a plane to fly to Queen’s Medical Centre intensive care ward in Nottingham.
“Daddy was so nervous about getting on the plane after the crash he had to get valium from the doctor to settle him,” said Yvonne.
Two weeks later Yvonne saw her brother for the first time since the air crash. “It was awful, my young, fit and healthy brother was lying there with tubes coming out of him in a coma — it was a real shock,” she said.
Stephen was airlifted back to home where he remained in a coma for the next six months. He was treated in both the Royal Victoria Hospital and Antrim’s Massereene Hospital.
Boxer Barry McGuigan visited the teenager while he was in hospital in a bid to bring him out of the coma.
“It was such a terrible time, but we did our best for him and tried everything to bring him out of the coma,” Yvonne said.
“I would take Stephen’s hand and put it on my nose or my eye and then ask him, where are yours? He would never answer, but one day, suddenly, he was fit to tell me where they were. It was the best day of my life.
“There were just tears of joy, I rang the family. His four brothers and three sisters stood round the bed watching him.”
However from that moment on Stephen had a tough road to recovery.
“He was like a baby learning everything again,” Yvonne said.
And the decision to become Stephen’s carer was one that came naturally to his sister.
“I didn’t have to think twice about it. He is a pleasure to look after. He is so brave and never complains, he should, but doesn’t,” she said.
Yvonne said it is hard to believe the crash was 20 years ago. “It seems like yesterday, not 20 years ago,” she said.
“Stephen says he can remember the pilot saying put on your seatbelt but I don’t know whether that is hearsay or something that he has picked up.”
She added the accident did rob him of a life as a great boxer.
Before the crash Stephen had fought 50 amateur matches and sparred with Eamonn Loughran, who went on to win a professional world title.
“He would have had a promising boxing career,” she said.
“There was anger at the start, but sure anger is a waste of an emotion. We are basically thanking God from all our hearts that Stephen is with us.
“It’s been a rough journey for Stephen, one that a young man should never have to go through.”
Since the accident many survivors have not got back onto a plane, but Stephen has.
Every year, he and Yvonne go to the Catholic shrine of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes.
“Stephen loves it. There is great spirituality about him,” she said. “We’ve had support from so many people since the accident, good friends and every church in Ireland were praying for him.”
In 1995, Stephen was awarded £1,425,000 after suing British Midland — it is believed to be the largest award made to a Kegworth air disaster victim.
No official memorial service has been organised to mark the anniversary but the McCoy family have their own plans.
“On the anniversary, we as a family will get together and have a celebration of Stephen’s life,” said Yvonne.
“He’s happy, he’s loved and gives love — it’s just such a miracle he is here with us.”