The man who was almost beaten to death by the loyalist mob who murdered Catholic cross-community worker Kevin McDaid has said he believes it should have been him who died and not the father-of-four.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Damien Fleming has spoken for the first time about the night of sectarian violence in Coleraine which shocked people across Northern Ireland when he was left for dead. He told of his feelings of guilt and sorrow that his lifelong friend was killed trying to save him.
“I’ve been told Kevin was trying to save me. I don’t know what to say to his wife Evelyn. I cracked up when I heard he was dead. I sat and cried. Someone told me while I was still in hospital. The nurse told me they thought I might have a relapse because I was so upset.
“If Kevin hadn’t come around (to help me) he would still be living. He had a family. He should have left me there. He was a dedicated family man. I feel very very down about what happened to Kevin.”
Mr Fleming, who has just been released from hospital, said: “I was reared with Kevin McDaid. We knew each other since we were young boys. I ran about with him, went to school with him, played football with him. He is my second cousin. Kevin was always helping the community. He would have done anything for you. He used to organise things like fishing for the young ones here to try and keep them out of bother. He was a real family man. He shouldn’t have died that night. It should have been me.
“I went to his grave the other day with my sister. It really upset me. Seeing his grave brought it back.”
Mr Fleming said he is feeling very vulnerable being back in the Heights estate where the attack took place and is now looking to move to another area.
Mr Fleming’s solicitor, Garrett Greene, from McCann and McCann Solicitors, said that his client has appealed for calm in the area and would like anyone with information about the attack to come forward to police.
Damien Fleming, who suffered horrific injuries in a sectarian attack that claimed the life of his friend Kevin McDaid, talks to Deborah McAleese
At the sound of his home phone ringing Damien Fleming jerked nervously in his armchair. “I’m feeling a bit jumpy. I didn’t want to leave the hospital — I felt safe there,” he said.
“I’m finding it hard being out. I don’t really like talking about what happened and I feel nervous about what might happen to me. People keep asking me how I am. But how are you supposed to feel after being almost beaten to death and your friend killed trying to help you?”
Mr Fleming looks frail and the scars and bruises inflicted on his face and body during the vicious attack by a loyalist mob just yards from his home on May 24 are clearly visible. He was left in a critical condition in hospital with serious head injuries and it was feared he would not pull through.
But one month after the attack he has finally been released from hospital and is now trying to piece his life back together.
“The nurses all told me I was lucky to be alive. They called me the miracle man. A police officer told me he had been in the police for 30 years and had seen many things and he said there must have been someone looking out for me. I was like the elephant man, my head was so swollen. I am very, very lucky to be alive,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Unconsciously touching a bandage on his throat which covers an insertion that doctors were forced to make to help him breath Mr Fleming said: “They (the doctors) cut a hole in my throat because I couldn’t speak or breath and they had to give me a pencil and note pad to communicate. I was able to write down the names of the people I saw attacking me.
“I know who they are and I know their families and I have to walk past their families if I go out because we all live so close.”
The 46-year-old kept the blinds in the front living room of his Somerset Drive home firmly closed. Outside, just yards away, is the spot where he and Mr McDaid appear to have been picked at random by the loyalist mob who rampaged through the Catholic estate after Rangers won the Scottish Premiership.
Nodding towards the window Mr Fleming said quietly: “It happened just across the way. I can’t really say too much about what happened because the police are investigating it but I was walking towards my home when I saw them and heard one say ‘there’s one of the fenian b******s there’. I felt punches. As I was down I heard one saying ‘keep at him’. After a length of time I was out cold.
“I don’t know why they did that to me. To be honest with you, it was any Catholic they were after that night. I was the first one they saw and Kevin maybe thought he was doing me a good turn. I’ve been told he was trying to save me. I don’t know what to say to his wife Evelyn. I cracked up when I heard he was dead. I sat and cried. Someone told me while I was still in hospital. The nurse told me they thought I might have a relapse because I was so upset. If Kevin hadn’t come around (to help me) he would still be living. He had a family. He should have left me there. He was a dedicated family man. I feel very very down about what happened to Kevin.”
Pointing out the window to the house across the road where Mr McDaid had lived with his family, Mr Fleming rubbed his eyes and shook his head slowly.
“I was reared with Kevin McDaid. We knew each other since we were young boys. I ran about with him, went to school with him, played football with him. He is my second cousin. Kevin was always helping the community, he would have done anything for you. He used to organise things like fishing for the young ones here to try and keep them out of bother. He was a real family man. He shouldn’t have died that night, It should have been me. I went to his grave the other day with my sister. It really upset me, seeing his grave brought it back.”
Lying beside his armchair a small bundle of newspapers with stories about the May 24 attacks look almost untouched.
“I can’t really bring myself to read them much, I find it hard,” Mr Fleming said.
“Physically I am still sore and get light-headed. I nearly fell a couple of times because I get dizzy. I am supposed to be going for rehabilitation and to the clinic but I’m not walking those roads. You don’t know who could pull up beside me or what they could do.
“I have told police I just want out of the area. I don’t want to go out. I don’t feel safe. When I came out of the hospital my family wanted me to stay with them but why bring bother to their door?
My niece stayed here the other night but I think she was scared and I don’t want to put them through that.”
The Heights area of Coleraine, where the nationalist and loyalist communities live in close proximity, has seen a lot of sectarian trouble and hatred over the years. Tensions were heightened yet again last week after a number of loyalist flags were erected close to the spot of the attacks on Mr McDaid and Mr Fleming.
“I don’t care about the flags, they’re not going to do me any harm. I just want people to stop all this. I don’t want to see anyone else hurt or dead. Poor Kevin should not be lying in that grave. This really has to stop,” Mr Fleming said.
* This article is from The Belfast Telegraph.