Miami Showband Massacre: 'I heard Fran saying 'please don't' - he was begging for his life ... there was a burst of gunfire, then silence'
It was one of the most horrific incidents of the Troubles - the night three members of the Miami Showband were cruelly gunned down on the side of the road by loyalist gunman. In this exclusive interview 40 years on, the two surviving band members - Stephen Travers and Des Lee - tell Alan O'Keeffe of their fight to survive and their memories of that bloody night in 1975
The two survivors of the infamous Miami Showband massacre have spoken out as they prepare for a 40th anniversary commemoration in Dublin.
The cold-blooded murders of popstars Fran O'Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy shocked the world in 1975 when loyalist gunmen forced their minibus to stop on a dark roadway in Co Down as they returned home from a gig.
Stephen Travers was just 24 when he was critically wounded by an exploding dum-dum bullet. Des Lee, whose official name is McAlea, was struck in the knee by bomb shrapnel in the horrific attack on the Dublin-based band.
The two men told the Herald their stories. They want people to know what really happened.
"The full truth of collusion between loyalist gunmen and security forces has yet to be revealed. I hope the truth will prevent something like it happening again," said Travers, now aged 64.
Neither men hold grudges against the killers but are suing the British State, claiming collusion destroyed or ended innocent lives.
"I don't feel bitter. I wouldn't be able to live with bitterness," said Lee.
The Dublin-based band, with the exception of drummer Ray Miller, was returning home from a gig in Banbridge, Co Down, when their minibus was stopped by men in army uniforms at a bogus checkpoint in the early hours of July 31, 1975.
The men were members of the loyalist terror group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). At least four of the gunmen were serving soldiers in the British Army's locally-recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
The band were told to stand on the side of the road facing a ditch with their hands on their heads. Two of the gunmen tried to hide a time-bomb in the minibus which was meant to explode later, wipe out the band, and label the musicians as bomb smugglers.
Such a scenario would have forced the Irish government to agree to virtually 'seal off' the border, Travers claimed.
But the bomb detonated prematurely, killing two loyalists instantly. The band members were blown off their feet into a nearby field. Other UVF members pursued them and opened fire, killing three of the band. Travers and Lee were wounded.
Two serving UDR soldiers and one former soldier were found guilty of the murders and received life sentences. They were released in 1998.
Both Travers and Lee remember having no fears when their minibus was stopped at the checkpoint.
Stephen Travers: "Brian was driving and, as we got closer, we saw a man in a UDR uniform waving a red light. He said 'Good night, lads, can you pull over. We just need to check the van'.
"So we were put standing facing the ditch with our hands on our heads. Some of the men in uniform were standing, some were sitting against trees.
"One of them said 'I bet you boys would rather be at home in bed than standing on the side of the road'. Fran immediately said, 'I bet you'd rather be in bed than sitting in a ditch'. They were laughing and we were laughing."
Des Lee: "They asked us 'Which one of youse is Dickie Rock?' We said good-humouredly that we got rid of him a few months ago."
Stephen: "Next thing, this very suave Englishman in lighter coloured fatigues appeared. He had a posh, clipped English accent and, all of a sudden, all the banter and good humour immediately stopped. I believe that this guy was an English officer. He had a different coloured cap and said he wanted our names and dates of birth."
Both Travers and Lee believe that, by a quirk of fate, their own actions inadvertently saved their lives.
They both became concerned that their instruments could be damaged during the so-called search. Lee stepped out of the line and removed his saxophone case from the vehicle and placed it on the roadway, opening the case to show the men that nothing else was in it.
Travers went to the back of the minibus and told the uniformed men to be careful with his bass guitar. He was punched in the back and told to get back.
Both men are convinced that by rejoining their musician friends in different positions in the line-up, they managed to survive the shooting which followed.
Suddenly, the bomb exploded. The two terrorists handling it were killed and the five musicians were blown over a ditch into a field below the road.
Stephen: "There was this flash and an incredibly loud bang. The whole world turned red. Then I heard shooting, I was shot. First thing I did was I shouted 'Mammy!' and then felt ashamed that I'd said that. Like a throwback to being a kid. The world went into slow motion.
"I heard this 'crack, crack', automatic gunfire and I tried to run. But I fell down about 10 feet through bushes. Then I thumped onto the ground and there were thumps on top of me. It was the guys.
Then, all hell broke loose.
"They jumped down into the field after us. I think Brian tried to lift me but he was killed beside me. I heard the lads crying 'Don't shoot'.
"I heard Fran shouting 'Please don't'. He was begging for his life. There was a couple of bursts of automatic fire. Then silence. Tony had been shot in the back of the head."
Des: "The blast had blown me over the ditch into undergrowth. I pretended to be dead by holding my breath for as long as I could.
"All I could hear was screaming and gunfire. The hedge was on fire because of the van exploding. I realised, once the fire got right to my body, I was going to have to run.
"Then it quietened down and I heard people running. Then I heard somebody shouting 'Are you sure those b*****ds are all dead'."
Stephen: "I heard footsteps walking around the field and I heard somebody kicking the bodies to see if they were alive. My dilemma was 'if he comes over, he is going to find me alive', so I stayed perfectly still.
"His footsteps came very close to me. I could feel the dewy grass against my face and I decided against getting up on my knees to beg for my life.
"I heard a man shouting 'Come on. I got those b*****ds with dum dums. They're dead'. Then, they were gone."
Des: "I called out Brian, Fran and Tony's names. No response. I called Stephen and I heard him moaning. I explained to Stephen that I'm going to Newry to get help.
"Out on the road, a young couple in a car agreed to take me to Newry police station."
Stephen: "Although I didn't know it then, a dum-dum bullet had entered my right hip and exploded inside me. The rest of the bullet went through my left lung and exited under my left arm. I heard Des calling 'Steve, are you okay?' Because I have that Irish thing about no fuss, I said 'I'm grand'. How daft was that? Des told me later he realised that I was in a bad way.
"I was crawling around and saying 'Everybody alright?' but they're dead. There's a lot of fire on the ditch and on the road. The place is lit up. I was passing out and then I'd wake up. I was in the field for 45 minutes.
"Next thing there was this 'whoop, whoop' over me and it was the army helicopter. I managed to get up on my feet and I heard all this walkie-talkie type nasal talk and I thought 'Christ Almighty, these fellows have come back'.
"Then I heard people and a flashlight shone straight in my face and I put my hand up and said 'Help.' I heard a man with a Northern accent say: 'It's all right, son, we're the police'.
"They walked me over to a fence and one dropped his flashlight and just then I saw Fran's hand and there was this neatest trickle of blood running down into his palm. They lifted me into an ambulance.
"The orderly in the ambulance told me afterwards that I grabbed the calf of his leg and I told him 'You're not leaving without the lads' and he said 'Don't worry, we've loads of ambulances. You'll all get one each'."
Only a few months later, both Travers and Lee took part in a Miami 'comeback' tour which attracted huge crowds.
They later went on to form a different band. But life just was not the same following the deaths of their friends. Des also felt under threat from loyalists and emigrated to South Africa to pursue his music career. He now lives in his native Belfast. Stephen moved to England, played gigs, and became a music promoter. A native of Carrick on Suir, he lives in Cork.
He said some of the loyalist killers were members of the same UVF gang that carried out the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the extent of their collusion with members of security forces has yet to be fully revealed.
Des said the Miami Showband built bridges across the sectarian divide. It had Catholic and Protestant members from both sides of the border and their performances brought joy to all sides until that awful night.
A 40th anniversary commemoration will take place at the Miami monument in Parnell Square in Dublin on August 1 at 2pm