‘They kept asking how their friends were’

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It was around 12.30am on August 20, 1988 when a bus carrying over thirty members and supporters of the Star of the Valley Flute Band from Tullyally pulled up close to Ballygawley in Co Tyrone so its passengers could get off to use public toilets in the area.

The band were returning from a band parade in Portadown and that day had just completed their first performance since the band reformed the year before.

As they availed of the services another bus passed them. None of the Londonderry passengers really probably paid much attention to it. When the city bound bus next saw the one that had passed it a few minutes later, it was a smouldering wreck having been devastated by a 200lb roadside Provisional IRA bomb.

When daylight broke a few hours later the full picture of the carnage hit home like a hammer blow. The 52 seater unmarked bus had been transporting 36 soldiers of The Light Infantry from Aldergrove back to Lisanelly Barracks in Omagh. Eight soldiers were killed, all but one dying instantly, with another 18 wounded. All the dead soldiers were single and aged between 18 and 21. The bomb blast hurled the bus 30 metres down the road, catapulting soldiers into hedges and fields. It left a crater 6 feet deep and scattered wreckage at least 100 yards.

Shortly afterwards the IRA claimed responsibility saying its Tyrone Brigade carried out the attack and saying: “We will not lay down our arms until the peace of a British disengagement from Ireland.”

The security forces suspected that an informer may have told the IRA of the bus route and the time it would be at a specific spot. After the attack the British military started ferrying troops to and from East Tyrone by helicopter to stop future attacks. There was evidence, given the fact the explosive used was Semtex, that the Libyan Government had supplied the material. Ten days later, three members of Tyrone IRA suspected of having carried out the bombing were killed by the SAS.

What also transpired was the Star of the Valley Band from Londonderry were the first to discover the carnage. Realising what happened they immediately began administering what little first aid knowledge they had.Band members spoke only to the Londonderry Sentinel in the aftermath of the attack despite press attention from around the UK and Ireland.

On Wednesday, August 24, 1988, UUP security spokesman and representative for the area, now Lord Ken Maginnis said of the band members: “They rallied round to give whatever first aid was possible. The men took off their jackets to wrap around the wounded to give them heat and comfort and bandages made from their shorts were used to stop bleeding.

“There were no hysterics although the young people must have felt very angry and outraged by what they witnessed. I was very proud of their actions and by their self-control under very difficult circumstances.”

Grace Curry was a flag bearer for the band. In 1988 she told the Sentinel of what she initially encountered: “There was someone on the road waving their arms. He was covered in blood and we thought their had been a car accident. There was a lot of moaning and we ran towards the noise.

“Apart from the soldier the only other person we could see was lying twisted around a post.”

Realising the desperate need to get help Grace and other band members attempted to stop cars: “Three cars refused to stop although they must have seen what happened. Another car with a southern registration stopped, we told him what happened and then he drove on.”

Another flag bearer, Audrey Miller said: “They all looked so young and one did not have so much as a scratch on him, but he was dead.”

And band member, Raymond Brace told the Sentinel 25 years ago: “When we reached them they kept grabbing our hands and asking how their friends were.”

The 1988 Sentinel report also said firemen arriving at the scene were so shocked by the sight they were physically sick.

The soldiers who died were:

Jason Bufitt (19)

Richard Greener (21)

Mark Norsworthy (18)

Stephen Wilkinson (18)

Jason Winter (19)

Blair Bishop (19)

Alexander Lewis (18)

Peter Bullock (21)