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All I want is Chloe back: Belfast mum's grief for teen daughter she lost in weekend of five deaths

'I'd been worried that she'd been drinking, it didn't even enter my head to worry about drugs... if someone is responsible, then I want them caught'

By Claire O'Boyle

Chloe Ponisi-Hutchings (16) was one of five suspected drug deaths last weekend in Belfast. Raised by her mum and great-gran, they tell of the family's utter devastation at loss of their fashion-loving and feisty 'blue-eyed girl'.

As she pulls at the sleeves of her knitted jumper, Sarah Ponisi's eyes fill with tears.

"It's Chloe's," she says.

"She never got the chance to wear it."

Heartbroken mum-of-three Sarah is reeling after the death of her daughter Chloe Ponisi-Hutchings last week. The 16-year-old was one of five people to die suddenly in Belfast across the space of a single weekend, prompting police to issue a warning about the dangers of drugs.

Just more than a week on, Sarah is clinging to any comfort she can and her daughter's clothes, as well as a necklace she'd bought for Chloe's 17th birthday later this month, feel like a start.

"All I want is Chloe back," says Sarah (37). "But I know we can't do anything to make that happen, so I'm not sure what to do with myself.

"I'm wearing this necklace, which she never even knew I'd got her, because it makes it feel like I'm closer to her somehow.

"She'd have loved it. The whole family is absolutely distraught and it's been a struggle every single day since we found out she was gone.

"I can't eat, I can't sleep and we've been in tears every day. If someone is responsible for Chloe's death, then I want them held responsible."

As the investigation into the teen's death continues and the family await toxicology results, neither they nor the police can confirm whether drugs were a factor.

But whatever the cause, the fallout has been devastating - and not just for Sarah.

Chloe, who was training to be a hairdresser, lived with her great-grandmother Helena Valliday for much of her life in the 85-year-old's west Belfast home.

"It was like Chloe had two mummies," says Sarah.

"My granny practically brought me up, and then she did the same for Chloe. She loved us both and did so much for us, and now for her it's like losing her own child too. There are two of us absolutely heartbroken over what's happened to Chloe and I'm afraid of what the stress of it is doing to her. She keeps calling me Chloe by accident, and every time she realises she's done it, she gets upset."

Describing her own relationship with Chloe, Sarah revealed that very often the pair felt more like best friends than mother and daughter.

"We were so close," she says. "We'd fight sometimes about silly things like wearing each other's clothes, but we shared everything too because we were the same size and loved doing stuff together.

"We'd go shopping and she was great for doing my hair and my make-up, she was so talented."

"Although not always," laughs Sarah.

"I remember not long ago she tried to colour my hair and had it in silver foils. I could see them slipping off and it was turning into a disaster.

"In the end it was such a mess I had to go to the hairdresser's to get it fixed, but we had a laugh about it in the end. We had loads of lovely times together and she was always my blue-eyed girl. She always will be."

Even talking about what has happened is a huge step for Sarah, who was initially in denial about her daughter's death.

"I just couldn't get my head around it," she recalls.

"A friend of mine rang on the Monday and told me Chloe's body had been identified at a flat near Great Victoria Street but I just said: 'No, it's not my Chloe'. I just didn't believe him.

"It wasn't until later, when I saw my brother Francis in tears telling me it was her that I realised it was true."

Heartbroken Helena adds: "I was in Dublin when the news about Chloe broke, about to head off to Spain on my holidays. I came straight back up the road when I found out, but it was only then Sarah was letting it sink in herself that it was really our Chloe who was gone.

"It's hard to believe what's happened because she was just everything to us. I remember one of the last conversations I had with her was about those awful ripped jeans the young ones are wearing.

"I was telling her off for having holes in her clothes and she was laughing at me, telling me it was all the fashion."

Sarah recalls seeing her daughter for the last time on April 2, just hours before her death. Chloe, she says, looked beautiful and hugged and kissed her goodbye before saying she loved her.

The teenager had gone out with friends on the Saturday night but failed to arrive back at her great-grandmother's house.

The following day Sarah was frantic with worry and searched high and low until she tracked her down that evening to a city centre flat.

"I was worrying all day because she wasn't back," recalls Sarah.

"And later that day my youngest said something that's haunted me ever since, that she wanted us to find Chloe because she was worried we'd never see her again.

"I kept on trying to get her and eventually she answered the phone to me and I went to this flat in town and saw her. I'd been worried that she was drinking, but when I got there she was stone cold sober and seemed really happy with a couple of her friends.

"Her hair and make-up were immaculate, she was in a new outfit with a lovely new pink leather jacket I'd bought her. It was the first time I saw her in it and she looked absolutely beautiful. She told me she was fine, that she wasn't drinking and that she'd be back home to her great-granny's in a few hours.

"I believed her and I thought she was fine. I was relieved, actually, because before I got there I'd been worried, but she looked so lovely and seemed in such a good mood.

"She seemed fine so I gave her a kiss and a hug and we both said 'I love you', like we always did. It wouldn't have entered my head to worry about drugs. That was the last time I saw her, until I saw her again in her coffin."

Chloe, originally from Antrim town, was buried from her great-grandmother's house last Saturday, and a huge crowd of mourners turned out to pay their respects at St Peter's Cathedral.

Piled up on the mantelpiece in the cosy front room, and surrounded by framed pictures of Chloe, are almost 400 Mass cards.

Part of a huge extended family - Helena had 18 children of her own and has more than 200 grandchildren and great-grandchildren - the devastating repercussions of Chloe's death are being felt far and wide from Belfast to Dublin, Donegal and beyond.

And as well as grieving family members, who almost a week after the funeral continue to mill constantly in and out of Helena's home offering cups of tea and hugs, are the teenager's many friends.

"She was such a popular girl," says Sarah. "She was bubbly and funny and feisty. She'd stand up to anybody, adults, men, whoever. I've always been much more timid but Chloe was such a confident and outgoing girl, I admired her for it.

"She loved her fashion and her hair and make-up, she loved socialising and she loved her friends. She absolutely loved her great-granny, and she loved me too.

"She would have loved all this, to have her picture in the papers, but of course we never imagined she'd have her picture in the papers for something as awful as this. It's unbelievable that we're doing this without her here in the middle of it."

The PSNI said an investigation into Chloe's death is ongoing.

"A 21-year-old man was arrested on April 3 on suspicion of possession of a quantity of class B and class C drugs. He has been released on police bail pending further enquiries."

Post-mortems have now been carried out on everyone who died suddenly last week and police are awaiting the results of further toxicology tests in all five cases.

The PSNI added: "Until toxicology reports are completed it would be inappropriate to speculate on potential drugs links."

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