GRAEME COUSINS talks to Kegworth survivor Stephen McCoy and his sister and primary carer Yvonne about the Co Antrim man’s fight for life
Stephen McCoy has inspired his family and countless others by the resilience he has shown after being given little chance of survival following the Kegworth air disaster.
On January 8, 1989 the 16-year-old boxer with a promising future boarded a London Heathrow flight to Belfast which was to change his life.
His family were at first devastated when they learned that Stephen’s plane had crashed at Kegworth, but over the past 30 years they have been left in awe by the recovery he has made after his father had been asked on numerous occasions if his life support could be switched off.
After the crash in which 47 people died, Stephen was in a coma for six months.
He left hospital in London three years after the crash, with life changing injuries which have left him brain damaged and paralysed down one side of his body.
With the help of his older sister Yvonne’s translation Stephen told the News Letter: “I’m just going to get on with life. I’m going to make a comeback.”
While in a coma, Stephen – a big fan of punk music – had been sent memorabilia and messages of support from local bands including Stiff Little Fingers and Undertones.
Henry Cluney (guitarist with Stiff Little Fingers) recorded messages and songs from the band on tape cassettes which were sent to Stephen to listen to via headphones.
Stephen, 46, recalled: “I remember hearing the tapes but I just couldn’t come out of the coma.”
His sister Yvonne, 49, explained the circumstances that found her brother on the tragic flight from London Heathrow to Belfast: “Stephen had been over in London, in Ealing, visiting a cousin of his. It was the first proper holiday he’d ever had.
“He’d been away with boxing but this was the first holiday.
“Stephen and his cousin Noel were both really into punk music and they both liked boxing and other sports.
“The only reason he was allowed to go away at the age of 16 was that his older cousin would pick him up and leave him back to airport and look after him the whole time in between.
“Mum and dad were sitting waiting for him at the airport coming back from the trip.
“They were called into the VIP lounge and given the news about the crash. They were devastated as you’d expect.
“I was 19 at the time. I was sitting in our wee housing estate in Ballydugennan village. I was getting ready to go out to a nightclub. Mummy and daddy, after they’d brought Stephen home, they were going to drop me off.
“When I saw the wreckage of the plane on the TV I knew that Stephen was either going to be very badly hurt or dead.
“We found out the next day that Stephen had been found and he was very seriously ill.”
His sister said: “The doctors had given him no hope. When I got over to see him in hospital he was in a coma. It’s a sight I wouldn’t wish on anybody. He was thin, lifeless, there was a massive dent in his head.”
She recalled the moment that gave the family hope: “A nurse was looking at Stephen in intensive care and she saw his big toe moving. The doctor dismissed it saying the nurse must have been seeing things, there’s no way his big toe could have moved.
“They were looking to switch off his life support machine and daddy wouldn’t hear tell of it.
“They asked daddy on numerous occasions and had asked if they could harvest Stephen’s organs.
“We’re so glad that daddy stuck to his guns because then Stephen came back.”
Yvonne was with Stephen the day he came out of the coma. She describes it as ‘the best day of her life’.
Yvonne added: “Stephen has dealt with this like a true champion. He has had a lot of illnesses after the crash, but he has took everything that has been thrown at him on the chin and has worked really hard to get better.
“I think it comes from his boxing background and his strong faith.
“He still would go to Lourdes every July. He goes to church in the summer time, but in winter time it’s not so easy. The priest comes to the house to give him Holy Communion.”
She said: “Stephen still loves his punk music and he would still go and watch some boxing matches.
“He’s been to see the Undertones and he met Johnny Rotten (former Sex Pistols singer) when he was in Bangor last summer (with his band Public Image Limited).
“Johnny Rotten (real name Lydon) spoke on stage and told people Stephen was there and what he’d been through. Johnny Rotten and his wife were supposed to be on the plane that was destroyed at Lockerbie (in 1988). He could really identify with Stephen’s story.”
Stephen lives in a purpose-built house in Toomebridge with his mother Rose, father Idris, younger brother Vincent and older sister Yvonne, who is his primary carer.
Yvonne, who was 19 when Stephen – then 16 – was seriously injured in the plane crash, said: “We’re blessed to have him with us. He’s the life and soul of the house.
“He is the best, best person and bravest person I have ever known. And that’s not just because he’s my brother.
“It’s just fact.
“He is an absolute delight to look after.”
Yvonne was a nursing auxiliary at an old people’s home when she took the decision to become Stephen’s full time carer: “There was no point me going out to care for other people when I’d a family member of my own that needed care.
“I’m his primary carer, but we’d all play a role. We’re a very close family.
Yvonne would spend around 12 hours every day looking after her brother but she said it “doesn’t feel like a job at all”.
“It’s a friendship,” she said. “We’re really happy in each other’s company.
“Stephen has a great sense of humour – very dry, very witty. He loves his life and is incredibly thankful for it.
“His faith has always been strong, but since the accident it has grown.
“The highlight of his year is getting to Lourdes. He has no fear getting back onto a plane every year. He puts his faith in God.”
Yvonne said: “His dream is to walk again, and do you know something, I think that will happen.
“He’s so determined. He was determined to live, and he is determined to make the best of his life.
“His progress has been very, very, very slow but he has improved.
“We think his speech has improved.
“He’s started drying dishes, things like that. He’s good help around the house.
“His family understands every word that he says. If he’s speaking to someone who doesn’t know him we would interpret for him.”
On behalf of Stephen’s family, Yvonne thanked everyone who has helped in her brother’s care.
She commented: “Our neighbours on both sides of the community have been brilliant. Their support has been unreal.
“Stephen will never forget the stuff that was sent to him from bands like Stiff Little Fingers and Undertones when he was in hospital.”
The former All Ireland boxing champion was also visited in hospital by one of his heroes, Barry McGuigan.
Stephen’s story features in a BBC NI programme made by EMM Productions, the company run by veteran broadcaster Eamonn Mallie.
True North – Stephen McCoy: My Fight To Live is an intimate insight into Stephen’s life 30 years on from Kegworth. He opens up about his hopes and his unfaltering determination to never to give up on his dream to walk once more.
In the documentary his family recall the traumatic day they learned of the crash, his slow recovery and how his faith and humour inspire them and everyone who meets him.
In addition to observing this personal journey, the film follows Stephen’s daily struggles in life.
Animated sequences brings the viewer into his emotional and imaginative world, revealing his innermost hopes, dreams, memories, fears and frustrations.
It sees Stephen revisit a favourite childhood holiday destination by the coast, catch up with old friends at his former boxing club – All Saints in Ballymena – and explore ground-breaking treatment using a robotic device known as an exoskeleton which could help him walk again.
The film crew also accompany Stephen on his annual pilgrimage to Lourdes which highlights his deep faith, his eagerness to communicate through prayer and his insatiable appetite for life in spite of his circumstances.
Having seen the documentary Yvonne said: “I think it’s a very well put together programme. It shows the remarkable and brave man that Stephen is.
“The animations are fantastic to show Stephen’s dreams and hopes. We’d never have thought of that, Michael Mallie (Eamonn’s son) came up with it. It was a very, very good idea.”
Asked would Stephen watch any of the programmes about the 30th anniversary of the Kegworth disaster, his sister Yvonne said: “He probably will but he’ll find them very emotional. He’ll cry probably.”
• True North – Stephen McCoy: My Fight To Live will be broadcast tonight (Monday) at 10.40pm and will be available on the BBC iPlayer