Inside the minibus, Brian McCoy could see that the red light was a torch held by a man who was waving it from side to side. He started to slow the minibus. He turned around and told the rest of the lads that there was a roadblock up ahead and they were being pulled over. ‘Again, this was not unusual,’ Stephen says. ‘We had been stopped before at checkpoints. There would be the usual chat with the soldiers on duty. Sometimes, they would recognise us and even ask for an autograph, so there was no reason for us to suspect that this was going to be any different.’
As the minibus slowed, the figure with the torch motioned for Brian to pull in to the left-hand side of the road. After he stopped, Brian rolled down the window.
‘I couldn’t hear what was going on, but then somebody opened the side door and we were told to step down out of the van,’ Stephen remembers.
As he got out, Stephen became aware of other figures, emerging from the darkness. He could make out one man propped up against a tree, with his rifle pointed towards the minibus. They lined up alongside each other and Crozier stepped forward with a notebook in his hand and started asking for names and addresses. Brian told him they were the Miami….
‘And then one of them started joking with us,’ Stephen recalls, ‘about us not wanting to be out answering questions. I smiled at that. Fran responded by saying they probably didn’t like being out at the side of a ditch at this time of the morning either and they laughed. I still find that hard to understand. Here they were, joking with us, and knowing all the time what they were about to do.’
Suddenly, a car pulled up behind the minibus. To this day, Stephen can recall vividly the appearance of this man at the scene. He immediately caught Stephen’s attention and made an indelible impression on him. ‘The joking stopped. Everything changed. He had all the bearings of authority, of someone used to being in command. This officer was very efficient in his manner and the others became much more businesslike at his arrival.’ He was dressed differently too. Unlike the soldiers in their UDR uniforms, he was in a pair of smart combat trousers with numerous pockets, and a combat smock. ‘I admired the professionalism of this man,’ Stephen remembers. ‘He was good-looking and very cool. To me, he looked like ‘action man’. I noticed that he was wearing a different-coloured beret to the others. His was markedly lighter in colour, while the others were dark.
However, it was his English accent that really caught my attention. From my time in London, I had been exposed to a variety of accents and his was a very well-spoken one. He spoke with an educated, curt military voice when he addressed the men standing around us. It was a commanding tone that demanded obedience.’ Now the atmosphere was different. There was no more banter.
The musicians were ordered to put their hands on their heads. After a quick consultation with the man who had previously appeared to be in charge, the officer changed Crozier’s orders. He instructed this man to tell Crozier to get dates of birth instead of names and addresses. He didn’t speak directly to Crozier and at no time did he directly address the Miami band members. But any foreboding that Stephen was beginning to feel was dispelled when Brian, standing next to him, nudged him and said, ‘It’s okay, Stephen, this is British Army’, indicating the officer. ‘Brian, a Protestant from Northern Ireland, was familiar with security procedure and he probably reasoned that we would be checked and on our way much quicker than if it was simply a UDR checkpoint. The UDR, although a bona fide part of the British Army and its largest regiment, was comprised mainly of part-timers. They had a reputation for sometimes being unpredictable and unprofessional in their behaviour, especially toward those from the Republic.’ Des McAlea, a native of Belfast, would also later state that he too considered it a joint British Army/UDR operation. Reassured, Stephen began to feel irritated by the delay. His patience finally ran out when he heard the back of the minibus being opened. ‘I got annoyed when I heard them lifting the flap at the back of the minibus. I looked around and I thought, I have had enough of these games. I was leaning over to see what they were doing because my guitar was in there. I had a very unusual guitar, a transparent Dan Armstrong Plexiglas bass, and I was very protective of it. I was damned if I was going to let some awkward soldier manhandle it. It seems naďve but, like Tony, I loved my guitar.
But my naďvety probably saved my life.’ Stephen stepped out of line and walked towards the back of the minibus. ‘I asked indignantly, “What are you doing?” One of them glanced up and, pointing at my case, asked me if there were any valuables in it. I said there wasn’t, that it just contained my equipment.’ Stephen had dropped his hands from his head when he stepped out of line. ‘And this soldier, a well-set guy, punched me from behind into the kidneys. It knocked the wind out of me and I gasped. The suddenness of the punch caught me off-guard as well as hurting me.’ Stephen was pushed back into the line, but now he was standing to the right of Brian.
‘I hadn’t been taking this as seriously as perhaps I should have, but I knew then that something was definitely wrong.’
It is a cold spring day in March 2006. The leaves and thick foliage of high summer, so obvious in the footage from the aftermath of the bomb-blast, have been replaced with bare bark and windswept fields. Stephen and I are standing in silence, looking down through the naked trees into the field where Stephen lay dying beside his friends when the UVF’s plot backfired. Stephen’s eyes are looking down onto the field as it lies before us today, but he is seeing another scene. I stand to one side, watching as he disappears into his own past. ‘We were standing just about here,’ Stephen says eventually, his voice quiet as he points at the ground. I have to lean in closer to hear him. I can just make out his words through the noise of the traffic passing yards behind us. ‘I had been standing over there, but when the guy punched me back into the line I was at a slightly different angle.’ Suddenly there was a massive bang.
While the two men rummaged in the back of the van, two others were placing a bomb under the driver’s seat. As they tilted it on its side, 10lb of commercial explosive detonated without warning. The bombers were blown to pieces in a flash. The explosion ripped off their heads, tore off both arms of one of the men and one of the legs of the other. One torso was sent spinning 100 yards away from the road. The blast spread in every direction, ripping the minibus in two. The instant shockwave caught the musicians from behind and propelled them into the air, where they spun in the blinding flash that luridly lit up the surrounding fields for miles around. The violent roar of the explosion shattered the silence of the countryside. It was followed by the sharp crack, crack, crack of gunfire as the stunned terrorists panicked and squeezed the triggers of their submachine guns and pistols. Bullets flew in all directions. Some were embedded deep into wood and soil; the rest tore through skin, muscle and bone. Dozens of spent cartridges clattered across the road. We walk over to the side of a ditch that separates the road from the field. Stephen points out exactly where he landed after the explosion had lifted him off his feet. ‘I was able to count every one of these,’ he says, touching the branches of a tree. ‘It was as if I was in slow motion. I could feel every little tiny branch as my body passed through the bushes.’
As he twisted high in the air, he was struck by a dum-dum bullet—a high-explosive bullet modified specifically to ensure maximum damage to whatever it hit. It entered through his right hip and ripped through his body, destroying organs and tearing open arteries, shredding flesh, bone and sinew, before exiting just under his left arm. We move around to get a better look into the farmer’s field, which, now bare of crops, reveals the deep furrows left for planting. Stephen indicates the fifth row in and says this is where he lay, face down in the soil.
‘I was in no pain. After I landed, I felt two arms trying to lift me. Fran was on one side of me and Tony was on the other. They had their arms under mine and they were dragging me further into the field. One of them was crying. They must have been trying to get me away from the carnage on the road, but I collapsed.
My two brave friends could no longer carry me and as the gunmen jumped down into the field shouting, they dropped me and ran in the opposite direction, away from them, further into the field. It was there that the gunmen caught up with them. I heard them screaming, begging not to be killed. I can still hear them crying out. There was a long, loud burst of gunfire ... and then silence ... ’
Stephen trails off and walks slowly towards the corner of the field, where a road sign indicates the direction of Donaghmore, one-and-a half miles away. I leave him alone for a moment. His account has chilled me. I can’t help but wonder about the men responsible for The Miami Showband massacre. From my initial research, I could easily dismiss them as psychopaths who carried out this atrocity without remorse or regret. But they were men who had families, friends, normal lives outside of their ‘cause’. How, then, were they able to act with absolutely no mercy for innocent men, who lay defenceless and dying at their feet?
Stephen’s next vivid memory of that night is of footsteps approaching him as one of the gunmen who had just slaughtered his friends walked towards him, he presumed to finish him off. As he got closer, Stephen’s brain raced with the thoughts of what was about to happen. For a man who had been badly wounded, lying in a field, and who had listened to the last desperate cries of his friends as they were murdered, his memory is remarkably lucid. He can recall exactly what was going through his head. I am curious about this. I remember tales of people who have stared death in the face and who saw bright lights at the end of a tunnel, or how others saw their lives flash before them. But Stephen wasn’t experiencing any of those things. He wasn’t thinking about dying; he was thinking about survival. ‘I heard someone walking towards me. I knew what this meant. I thought, I have two choices. Do I get up on my knees and beg for my life, or do I stay lying here and pretend I’m dead? As I lay there, face down, with the grass against my cheek, I decided, I’ll stay here, I won’t budge.’
Just as the gunman reached Stephen, he stopped and kicked something, or someone, lying on the ground. It was Brian. The gunman kicked his body again, but there was no response. A split-second passed before Stephen heard him take the final few steps to where he was lying.
‘I suddenly felt all the tension drain out of me. All that was going through my head was, I’m probably not going to feel this. It is going to be quick. At that moment, a voice from the road and shouted, “Come on, those bastards are dead. I got them with dum-dums.” The footsteps stopped. There was what seemed like an eternal silence. Then he began to walk slowly away from me.’
Stephen still wasn’t sure if he had escaped. ‘As he walked away, I reasoned that if he does turn around to fire one more shot, his aim may not be that good. His bullet might hit me, but not kill me. I tried to concentrate my mind on not screaming out should another bullet tear into my body.’…………..
Kindly reproduced from 'The Miami Showband Massacre' by
Stephen Travers and Neil Fetherstonhaugh
Published by Hodder Headline Ireland Ltd
This story is the personal recollection and understanding of an individual. Any views or opinions expressed are the sole responsibility of the individual who recalled their story. Sharedtroubles is acting purely as a facilitator.