Belfast Telegraph

Mystery over last moments of Owen at riverside as police probe his drowning

By Ivan Little

The only relief for Owen McKeown’s family who knew there could be no happy outcome to their River Bann nightmare was that the waiting and the uncertainty didn’t last long.

Unlike the relatives of other recent high-profile drowning victims around Northern Ireland, the McKeowns didn’t face the agony of having to spend days or weeks at a riverside or quayside before a body was found.

Their 21-year-old son went missing at teatime on Saturday night and by lunchtime the next day his body had been recovered.

“It’s little comfort for them but at least it’s something,” said a police source.

“Now the grieving has begun and we want to give them answers about the tragedy.”

Four relatives who were desperate for news had travelled from Ballymena on Sunday morning to the scenic Portneal Lodge access point beside a six-span stone bridge over the Lower Bann.

But the news wasn’t good at the nerve centre of the police operation and the family were advised to return home to await developments about the search and the investigation.

All around Kilrea, police were trying to establish how Owen McKeown met his death.

A PSNI van blocked off a laneway off the Coleraine Road which leads to the river.

Two canoeists who’d been on the Bann told police it was at the bottom of the lane beside St Columba’s Primary School that they’d seen a man going into the river around 6pm on Saturday night.

Yesterday morning the canoeists returned to the Bann, this time in an inflatable dinghy accompanied by police to pinpoint exactly where they’d last seen him.

It was at that spot that divers went into the Bann where visibility is notoriously poor, but shortly after 1pm yesterday, they found the body of a man and although they didn’t confirm his identity, there was little doubt who it was.

The body was ferried just a short distance away to another landing point at Portna and it was later taken away for a post-mortem examination.

Meanwhile, detectives were questioning three men about Owen McKeown’s death.

There were reports that the Ballymena man was driven down the Coleraine Road laneway on Saturday night in a car which later left the scene.

A statement from the PSNI on Saturday night said: “Police are appealing for information following reports of a male jumping into the River Bann at the Bann road bridge, Kilrea, at approximately 6pm. Police would especially wish to speak to a number of males seen leaving the area shortly afterwards in a red-coloured car.”

It’s understood that the PSNI carried out a series of raids on homes during the early hours of the morning.

The men who were held are aged 25, 26 and 30.

Detectives were understood to have been following a number of leads and they quickly ruled out suicide from their inquiries.

Sources said police were trying to piece together the victim’s last movements and who was in his company on Saturday afternoon.

The SDLP MLA John Dallat was mystified about the tragedy.

“All I know is that a car went down a lane and a man was observed going into the river. We don’t know why.

“I have lived in this area all my life and I have never been on that lane nor had any reason to be on it. It is very strange.

“There’s a lot of speculation but I think the last thing we want is a rumour mill. We just need to support the police with their investigation.

“It’s certainly not an area where people would, as a practice, be going into the river.

“There are fast currents there and it’s not part of the Bann which is designated for swimming or anything like that.”

Mr Dallat said people in Kilrea were deeply shocked.

“We associate the river with leisure, tranquillity, beauty and peacefulness and our thoughts go immediately to the dead man’s family as they try to cope with this tragedy in such terrible circumstances where so many questions are being asked.”

Sinn Fein Assemblyman Daithi McKay backed calls for the public to assist the probe into the drowning.

“There is still a lack of clarity as to what happened but anyone with information should bring it forward.

“Whatever the circumstances, it is a tragedy and our prayers are with this young man’s family.”

Mr McKay praised the professionalism and hard work of the emergency services and volunteers who were involved in the search for the body.

He said the incident was a sad reminder of how dangerous the River Bann is.

Sean McCarry from the Community Rescue Service said 48 volunteers from teams from Portglenone, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Ballycastle took part.

“We had three boats on the river and four ground search teams worked along the banks of the Bann right into the dark.

“We had two kayak teams as well, Mr McCarry said.

“It’s a pity there wasn’t a better outcome.”

Story so far

Two canoeists saw a man enter the River Bann at around 6pm on Saturday night. He was seen to be in difficulty and an attempt was made to rescue him. The would-be rescuer could not get to him and was forced to return to the riverbank.

The alarm was raised and a search for the man was put into operation. Police recovered the body of a 21-year-old man yesterday near where he was last seen.

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