Dean McIlwaine: We don't know how we'll ever get over losing him, say distraught parents
The grief-ravaged mother of tragic Dean McIlwaine choked back tears last night and said she doesn't know how she will live without him.
Karen McIlwaine sat in a state of shock in her Newtownabbey home, barely 24 hours after her son's body was found on Cave Hill in north Belfast on Saturday.
"I'm totally numb. It isn't sinking in. But I have no idea how I will cope," she said. "I don't know how we are going on without him, because he was so close to us all.
"The thought of him being up there on Cave Hill on his own breaks my heart."
But Mrs McIlwaine said the discovery of Dean's body by volunteers searching the Cave Hill Country Park had at least answered some of their agonising questions about what had happened to him and where he was.
She added: "Thank God they found him. Because if they hadn't, God knows how long he would have been lying there before anyone found him.
"At least we can have him home now. It would have been awful to have had to live without any news, waiting and wondering."
Even though the body of the talented 22-year-old barber hadn't been formally identified by yesterday afternoon, the McIlwaines were in no doubt that it was Dean.
His father Rod said: "His friends who saw the body recognised Dean's distinctive tattoos and they also knew him from the clothing that he was wearing 10 days ago when he went missing."
It has been revealed that a family member, who was part of the search team that found Dean, feared the worst when he saw a shoe in undergrowth.
Stephen McWatters, who is married to Dean's cousin, realised that the shoe belonged to the missing man and realised that he couldn't be far away.
Karen McIlwaine said: "Stephen knew right away. I bought Dean the loafers which had tassles on them in Top Shop just before he went to Cyprus for his brother's wedding.
"They found Dean's body nearby."
Mrs McIlwaine had still been clinging to the slender hope that Dean was still alive, even as she and her husband watched Saturday's massive search starting in Cave Hill Country Park.
But the miracle on the mountain that she prayed for never materialised.
Yesterday, it still wasn't clear how Dean died.
A post mortem is expected to establish the cause of death.
But Mrs McIlwaine said: "Dean had everything to live for - a new home, a new business and a girlfriend who loved him.
"But maybe he had been coming under pressure from all the changes that were happening in his life."
Friends said the death of his grandfather had also had a profound impact on Dean.
"I think he may have gone out to clear his head from everything that was going on," said his mother, who hadn't been optimistic that the Cave Hill search, carried out by more than 400 volunteers and specialist rescue teams, would bring an end to the family's nightmare.
"There'd been searches of lots of places before, on Carnmoney Hill, at the lough shore and along nature trails.
"I knew the police and the rescue teams were doing their best, but I thought Cave Hill was just another location to add to the list of areas that they could rule out.
"I had never heard Dean talking about the Cave Hill."
Mrs McIlwaine (below), her husband and other family members had gone to Monkstown to conduct their own search for Dean after hearing reports that a woman had seen a distressed young man in the area.
But it was at Monkstown that the phone call came to say that a body had been found at Cave Hill and the McIlwaines returned to the country park.
"The police wouldn't let us go to the place where the body was found," said Mr McIlwaine. "They said it was too dangerous because searchers had found conditions underfoot treacherous and the grass was extremely tall."
It is understood that the search team became suspicious after seeing that some of the grass had been trodden down and decided to investigate.
As she was comforted by friends and family yesterday, Mrs McIlwaine spoke of her immense pride in her son.
"He was the most talented wee barber ever. A lot of the press people who have been with us told us that Dean had cut their hair in the salon where he worked in the centre of Belfast.
"One of the police inspectors also said he had done his hair as well. He was very popular with everyone."
Mrs McIlwaine said her hopes for Dean's safe return rose and fell throughout the ordeal surrounding his disappearance.
"I had my good days and my bad days. Some mornings I woke up and said that we were going to find Dean that day. But when I started to think that he hadn't taken anything out of his account I feared he couldn't be surviving without any money.
"But the next day I would convince myself that he would turn up. And strangely enough, as time went on I got a wee bit more confident that we would get him.
"On Saturday morning I said to my husband that Dean would be home at some stage. But I was hoping that he would be coming home alive."
Experienced rescue and recovery experts have told the McIlwaines that they believe Dean had been at Cave Hill since July 13, the day he was last seen alive on the Carnmoney Road.
But even in the midst of their own despair, the McIlwaines still took time yesterday to say they were thinking of the family of missing English RAF man Corrie McKeague, who hasn't been seen since a night out in Bury St Edmunds last September.
Police thought the 23-year-old's body might have been in a landfill site, but a 20 month, £1.2m search revealed nothing.
"My heart goes out to them," said Mrs McIlwaine. "If you never knew what happened to your loved one you would be in absolute turmoil. You couldn't live without some sort of closure. You would be going out the door every day looking and looking and looking."
The McIlwaines said they wanted to thank everyone who had helped in the search for Dean.
"I don't know how to express my gratitude to the Community Rescue Service, the police and all the others who hunted tirelessly for Dean," said Mr McIlwaine. "And the whole community came together in the searches.
"We were overwhelmed to see so many hundreds of people at Cave Hill Country Park and we also want to thank the many more who helped us with posters, food and taxis for the volunteers."