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Children of missing kayaker Robert Hanna sleep with precious reminder of beloved dad

By Ivan Little

Published 12/01/2016

Donna Hanna and son Luke hold cushions made from shirts worn by Robert Hanna for each of his three children
Donna Hanna and son Luke hold cushions made from shirts worn by Robert Hanna for each of his three children
Robert with children Rachel, Ross and Luke
Locals search near Portmuck Harbour
The poignant messages

The heartbroken children of missing Carrickfergus man Robert Hanna go to sleep every night with precious reminders of their father under their heads.

For shirts belonging to their father, who vanished 15 weeks ago on a kayaking trip off the coast of Co Antrim, have been fashioned into covers for pillows which have been sprayed with his aftershave.

And special messages have been embroidered onto the pillows for each of the three children who have been devastated by the loss of their 47-year-old father in September.

Cradling one of the pillows in her arms, the youngsters' mother Donna said: "They're all the three of them have of their father now. They're in turmoil."

The youngest of Robert's children, nine-year-old Luke, said the aftershave is wearing off now and he wants his mother to sprinkle more of it on his pillow which has the words: "This is a shirt I used to wear. When you hold it, know I am there," sewn into the fabric.

Donna who was 46 yesterday and who didn't return to work in a nursing home until eight weeks after Robert's disappearance, said the whole family were living under a cloud of uncertainty, adding: "It never leaves us. We are all just waiting for news that never seems to come. If I hear a helicopter I wonder if there's a new search being launched.

"I know he's not coming back but it's the thought of him lying in the sea somewhere that is so terrible. He deserves better than that and we need closure to rest him in peace."

It was Luke who first realised that something was wrong on Monday, September 28, when his father wasn't at home to meet him on his return from a nearby primary school.

His absence couldn't have come on a worse day because on the short walk from classroom to front room Luke had been picked on by a group of bullies and he desperately needed someone to support him.

His mother, who's a care assistant at a nursing home in Carrick, took a call from Luke's 16-year-old brother Ross to tell her about the bullying and about the fact that their father wasn't in the house.

Donna said: "That struck me as unusual because Robert has always been reliable. I knew he wasn't planning to be away, he'd even made a lasagne which was in the oven.

"But as the minutes turned into hours on that awful Monday evening and there was still no word from him, we all became very frightened.

"I kept ringing Robert's mobile phone but there was no reply and then his best friend who sometimes went kayaking with him but wasn't with him that day started calling to say he was worried as well."

Donna rang the coastguard who contacted the police and a massive search was carried out with three helicopters combing the coastline and an inshore lifeboat from Larne was backed up with rescue teams from Bangor, Portmuck and Larne.

Robert's family and friends also joined the emergency services but they found nothing.

Donna fears Robert, who was wearing a black lifejacket and wetsuit, may have had a heart attack.

"It was a calm enough day," she said. "But we knew that the undercurrents and the crosswinds were lethal further out at sea. Yet Robert wouldn't have taken risks. He'd only been kayaking for a few months but he had a deep respect for the sea.

"He used to do a lot of scuba diving around shipwrecks in Co Down." Donna said Robert had been complaining of feeling unwell with flu-like symptoms and indigestion in the days before his kayak trip and she thinks he may have fallen ill at sea, causing him to lose control of his craft.

But she and Robert's brother and sisters still lived in hope that he might have managed to get to safety on shore, possibly suffering from concussion, though the last embers of optimism were extinguished on October 18 when a kayak was found in Campbeltown in Scotland. "Police showed me a picture of it and I quickly recognised it as Robert's kayak," said Donna.

And it was then that she knew the man she met 25 years earlier when they both worked at a Glengormley restaurant was almost certainly dead.

Donna's 16-year-old son Ross went to pieces after seeing the photograph, locking himself in his room.

"He'd been convinced that his daddy would be back," said Donna. Rachel (19) had just started university in Glasgow two weeks before her father disappeared and came home to be with her mother and brothers.

For the Hannas, Christmas was a particularly difficult time.

Donna said: "Rachel put a Christmas tree up and the four of us had dinner together but there was an empty seat at the table so it was a bit sombre and felt strange without Robert and his camcorder filming everything. For me however New Year was even harder. I couldn't stop crying."

The family's pain was exacerbated by rumours circulating around Carrickfergus that there was more to Robert's disappearance than met the eye.

Donna knows that police had to investigate every possibility.

They found Robert's wallet and his credit cards at Portmuck inside his car which now sits outside his semi-detached home in a quiet cul-de-sac in Carrickfergus. "You always get gossip," said Donna, "but it is very annoying to hear people who don't even know Robert saying all sorts of things.

"Relatives overheard someone saying that he'd done a runner, which is nonsense. There's also been talk that he was depressed but that is completely wrong.

"The police told me early on they were satisfied that this had been a tragic accident."

Donna said that Robert loved life. "He always kept himself really fit. He enjoyed cycling as well as weight training and he was the life and soul of the party. He adored his kids and they adored him.

"He was very funny and laughed at himself and his difficulty with spelling. His text messages were hilarious.

"I just wish we could find him. Our hopes have been built up so many times.

"At first the coastguard said a big storm could bring his body up to the surface but we've had plenty of bad weather now but Robert hasn't been recovered.

"After one particularly bad storm in November there was a big search from Torr Head back to Whitehead but without any results."

So for now the Hannas remain in a state of anguished limbo. Donna said: "We don't know if we should be having a memorial service for Robert or if it's too early. I should just hope that 2016 brings some news and some closure."

She said Robert's family and friends have been using social media in a bid to find more information from the public especially in Scotland where they believe there may be clues to his whereabouts.

She added: "The kayak was found washed up on rocks near Campbeltown by a passer-by and we've asked people over there - and here, too, of course - to keep their eyes open for anything that might give an indication as to where Robert might be.

"A bag in which he kept his phone and something to eat has never turned up"

The unspoken dread in the Hanna family, of course, is that they might never find Robert.

But his son Luke regularly still draws pictures of his dad in his kayak with the message: "Daddy, please come home."

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