A rural community was united in grief yesterday as hundreds turned out to bid final farewells to three men killed in a tragic air crash.
Funeral services for Stephen Annett (25), Hugh McKnight (54) and Andrew Burden (24) were held in Kilkeel and Annalong in what was one of the darkest days for Co Down.
The trio were killed when a light aircraft crashed and burst into flames in a field outside Kilkeel last Friday night. The three motorcycle enthusiasts had been returning from a day at the TT races on the Isle of Man.
Twenty-five-year-old Stephen Annett’s family were the first to say goodbye with a service at Mourne Presbyterian Church in Kilkeel. Mourners were told that the “irreplaceable” young stone cutter was a “great son”, of whom his parents Stanley and Freda could be “tremendously proud”.
Minister Rev William Bingham read an emotive tribute from Stephen’s father, in which he said: “Stephen was the best son any dad could hope to have. Like me, he was a man of few words, but one look from him was worth a thousand words, such was the bond we had...
“I wish I could see him right now and tell him I love him, but that will have to wait till we see him again in Heaven.”
After the service, many of the mourners made the short drive up the coast to the village of Annalong for two more funerals.
Father-of-three Hugh McKnight, who had been piloting the fateful plane, was laid to rest after a service in the tiny Annalong Presbyterian Church in the heart of the village.
The church was packed beyond capacity with people spilling onto the graveyard and into the streets.
Among those in the congregation were Mr McKnight’s devastated wife Shirley, son James and daughters Linda and Laura. Uniformed PSNI and Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue officers were also in attendance.
Medals belonging to the former UDR soldier and RUC man were proudly displayed on top of his coffin alongside two bouquets of coloured flowers. The remains were also flanked by two flags from Kilkeel British Legion.
In his address, Reverend Stuart Finlay said Mr McKnight had fulfiled his lifelong ambition by becoming a pilot in the 1990s.
“He travelled to Florida to undertake an intensive training course with some of the best aviation instructors in America in order to gain his wings.
“Once free to fly solo, nothing gave him greater pleasure than to take someone up with him for a pleasure flight,” he said.
The congregation also heard how motorbike racing was also among his passions.
Added the Minister: “The stars of motorcycling knew Hugh by name and he was a personal friend of the Dunlop brothers and was hugely saddened by their tragic deaths.
“Hugh had helped Joey in his preparations for his numerous mercy missions to Romanian orphanages — a fact not known to many — but not one to surprise those of us who knew him.”
Mr McKnight had been heavily involved in the local community and the Rev Bingham counted him as a personal friend.
“Hugh McKnight will be very much missed by us all, his welcoming smile, his fun-loving ways, his interest and concern for many of us. We don’t know why he was taken from us as he was, but we’re glad we had him with us for the years we did, and glad he accomplished so much through his life,” he concluded.
Among those who carried the coffin to the graveside were Mr McKnight’s flying pals Archie Alderdice and brothers Gregory and Gary Nicholson — who witnessed the horrific scenes last Friday. Mr McKnight’s wife and daughters carried red roses and wept as they made their way towards the grave.
A short time later, Annalong residents lined the streets as the funeral cortege for the youngest of the three crash victims snaked its way through the village.
Andrew Burden’s teammates from Annalong Swifts Football Club formed a guard of honour as his coffin, draped in a football jersey, was carried up the steps into the same tiny church. Mourners including his heartbroken mother Ann and girlfriend Sarah walked hand in hand fighting back tears.
Rev Finlay, who again led the service described the young aluminium worker as a “Livewire — full of energy and very sporty — and with a lovely pleasant personality which never changed as he grew older. He had a great sense of humour and was always something of a joker.”
The Minister praised the family and wider community for the dignity they displayed during such a “terrible week” and read a poem written by one of the Annalong Swifts’ footballers.
Continued Rev Bingham: “And so in many ways the death of Andrew (with the others) is a tragedy of a life of promise cut shortfor reasons we cannot understand, nor will understand this side of heaven. But Bobbie and Ann, you can be tremendously proud of your son. I know you’re very thankful for the joy he brought to you lives.”