On Sunday past, a quarter of a century after the Ballygawley bombing, members of the Star of the Valley Band returned to the scene of the atrocity to lay a wreath. For many it was the first time they had been near the area in all those years.
Amongst those who travelled back to the area last weekend was Grace Curry-who spoke to the Sentinel at length about her experiences on that night in August, 1988 in the pitch darkness of an isolated part of Co Tyrone.
“The first I knew about it was when a young soldier appeared asking for help. Some of his fingers were missing. A few of the men got off the bus first and we followed them. The minute I stepped outside I knew something wasn’t right, there was just a very eerie feeling.
“It was very dark at that stage. We didn’t know where we actually were and our driver was so badly shaken even he couldn’t tell so we couldn’t give our location to the police in the immediate aftermath. One of the first things I saw after getting out of the bus was a wee soldier. He had no head. I vomited and then I prayed for courage to face what was coming. There were bodies everywhere; shrapnel, bits of limbs, bits of flesh. It’s something you can never forget. We ran, and came across a farmhouse. We asked for blankets and so on for the wounded and told the man we needed help. We rang the police and gave the man’s telephone number-but nothing happened, they didn’t come immediately.
“We rang back and I gave my mother-in-law’s name as she worked in Ebrington Barracks. The first security presence we saw was when what I think was the SAS descended from a helicopter on ropes into the bomb area. Then it seemed to descend into mayhem.
“I was looking after a soldier called Pete (Peter Llyod Bullock who was 21), who died. I was chatting away to him and didn’t realise he was dead. Then a medic came along and closed his eyes and told me to move along to the next one. It seemed very cold at the time, but I suppose they had to keep trying to save lives,” said Grace.
The next soldier Grace attended to was also called Pete.
She said: “He survived. God gave me the strength to deal with this that night. I did things I never thought I could.
“I still didn’t realise the scale of what happened. We stopped the next bus that came along. This was carrying the Omagh Protestant Boys Band. They didn’t know there were two soldiers wrapped around the axel of their bus. The soldiers were blown into the oncoming bus. They got off and started to help us as well.
“I don’t think we got home to Tullyally until it was breaking daylight. Next morning, the first person to visit me was my brother- a minister. We didn’t answer the door to anyone else because they all wanted to know what happened, including the press who were very invasive at the scene and outside our homes. The only press we spoke to was the Sentinel. We spoke to the former editor, Jimmy Cadden.”
So, in the immediate aftermath, what did Grace Curry think of those who carried out the attack?
“I couldn’t understand why they wanted to kill. They were aiming to kill everyone on that bus, not just the eight soldiers who died. I thought, ‘what would they think if someone tried to do this to their family’? I thought of the parents of the soldiers in England who would be receiving a knock on their doors to get news like that. I’ll never forget it,” she said.
And, twenty-five years on from that day, what does Grace Curry think now?
“It’s as vivid now as it was that day. I remember Peter, the soldier who died, trembling and asking about his legs. He had no legs, but I couldn’t tell him that. But he kept saying his legs were cold.
“I remember things like the band members being told to show up in spotless white shirts and one of the men didn’t have a lot as he was on the dole, so he borrowed a white shirt from his brother. He ripped the shirt and used it for bandages then he was worried about ruining the shirt. We laughed about that on the way home. We didn’t know what else to do.
“ We didn’t say much on the way home. I remember we ran out of cigarettes and that Tullyally seemed so very far away. Things like what they would do with the bodies next, where would they be taken- things like that went through my head,” she said.
There was one instance of further contact with those attacked at Ballygawley for Grace.
“My sister was in hospital giving birth to her son and I spoke to the soldier called Peter who survived and his parents. But, that was the last time there was any contact,” said Grace.
The Star of the Valley band were later presented with a bugle by The Light Infantry Regiment at Lisanelly Barracks in Omagh for their life saving efforts on the night of the bombing.
However, there is a quarter of a century of dealing with that night in private in an era when no counselling was offered- no opportunity to express your feelings to a wider circle.
Speaking about the Northern Ireland political situation back in the 1980s, Grace said: “I just thought it was never going to end. It’s hard sometimes when you hear something on the TV, if a bomb goes off you immediately wonder if anybody was injured or killed. It never leaves you.”
Before Sunday past it wasn’t until earlier this year that Grace went back anywhere near the bomb site in Co Tyrone since August 20, 1988.
She said: “I passed it once again this May on my way to Dublin to visit my brother and it was horrible- 25 years had passed and I still felt like that.”