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Game of Thrones village centre of search operation for missing Belfast teacher Catherine Johnston

Nevin Farrell spent the day with the rescue teams in Ballintoy as they attempted to locate mother-of-one

The beautiful seaside village of Ballintoy is usually a sleepy hideaway during the winter months, but yesterday the distinctive corkscrew road leading down to the harbour was thronged with search teams.

The emergency services swamped the north coast in a hunt for missing 39-year-old Belfast woman Catherine Johnston, and as darkness fell last night the search teams had fanned out towards the Giant's Causeway.

In the summer Ballintoy is bustling with visitors taking in attractions like the nearby Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, but at this time of year it is in near-hibernation.

So locals quickly knew something was wrong when the sound of a search helicopter began buzzing overhead in the early hours of Tuesday.

The search was sparked when Ms Johnston's white Seat Leon car was found in a parking bay at the harbour.

She had been reported missing earlier, and when she was not with the vehicle a huge land, air and sea search swung into operation.

Last night locals said they were hoping against hope she would be found and their thoughts and prayers were with Catherine and her family. The coastal search at Ballintoy got under way around 2.45am. Portrush Lifeboat, Ballycastle Coastguard and a search helicopter from Prestwick in Scotland were called in by police, along with the Community Rescue Service.

A hi-tech piece of specialist kit was deployed by searchers at the harbour, a drone with an underwater camera that can land on the sea.

The sheltered cove - which is famous for being portyared as Pyke Harbour in Game Of Thrones - was a hive of activity in the early morning and throughout the day.

Locals said conditions were good in the early hours, with the sea calm and moonlit.

Rain swept in during the day, but late in the afternoon it began to lift and by that stage the PSNI helicopter had also been deployed.

Ms Johnston is described as being 5ft 9ins, average build and with light brown shoulder-length hair.

Inspector Sammy McConnell of the PSNI said on Tuesday morning: "A white Seat Leon car, which we believe Catherine was driving, has been found in the Ballintoy Harbour area. There is currently a joint police and Coastguard search under way.

"I would appeal to anyone who saw this white Seat Leon car travelling between Belfast and the north coast or anyone who has any information to contact police on the non-emergency number 101 quoting reference 889 13/12/16."

Sean McCarry, regional commander of the Community Rescue Service, said last night the search had moved westwards towards the Giant's Causeway after passing across Whitepark Bay and Portbradden.

He said: "We have been searching all around Ballintoy Harbour and inland along the coast. Ourselves, the police and the Coastguard are involved in the search right along the coast here. The police helicopter was here working with ground search teams. I would say there were at least 50 or 60 people involved in the search.

"The Coastguard deal from the high water mark up to the land and we do above that and work with each other. The Coastguard cover the cliffs and the beach and we cover the rest of it.

"We will keep on searching here after dark and we will be back again tomorrow. The search is controlled by the police."

As darkness fell last night Mr McCarry said their search had reached as far as the Giant's Causeway but still Ms Johnston had not been located.

"We will be here this evening until the police stand us down," he added.

Back in Ballintoy there was concern. Colin Tweed (34), manager of the Fullerton Arms pub, said the whole village hoped the woman was found.

"Everybody here is praying she turns up safe and well," he said.

Ballintoy resident Malachy McAfee (68) said: "I heard the search helicopter at 4am and it was still hovering at 5am. There were some searches in and around the village but the main search was around the harbour here. The Moon was out last night and it was calm.

"Everybody here is hoping and praying she is found, and we are all thinking of her and her family. If there was anything I could do I would go and join the search but the rescue services have it all co-ordinated. This is such a scenic area for visitors, but today there is sadness, and especially with Christmas coming up, we hope the woman is found."

Yesterday occasional day-trippers at the harbour were outnumbered by searchers, but one visitor, who didn't want to be named, said: "This area is associated with so much joy and people love coming here for the beauty. Ballintoy Harbour is one of the most photographed locations in Northern Ireland so it is heartbreaking that a young woman is missing."

One local said: "Along this coast there have been tragedies, be it at the clifftop near Ballycastle or here at Ballintoy. Last Christmas a man went missing in Ballintoy and his body was found at the harbour. That was a tragedy, and this new search at this time of year has had people thinking about that."

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