Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Montgomery's brother still blames himself for one punch-death tragedy

'I've had dark moments, it was my idea to go out on night Aaron was killed by single punch'

By Claire McNeilly

A heartbroken Co Antrim man who cradled his dying brother after a fatal ''one punch" assault by a stranger has revealed that he tortured himself with blame for years afterwards.

Adam Montgomery's brother Aaron was just 23 when, in a catastrophic case of mistaken identity, his life was tragically cut short outside a nightclub in Belfast city centre.

And, as the 10th anniversary of the young marketing executive's death approaches, what happened on Valentine's Day 2008 remains particularly painful for 31-year-old Adam, his sister Rachel (27) and their parents Stephen (59) and Jacqueline (55).

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of a fundraiser he's organising in Aaron's memory, salesman Adam recalled that he had been the one who had suggested that the two brothers, along with a friend, should take the train from Moira into Belfast that fateful night.

"I had dark moments after he died because it was my idea to go out, and it was my decision to go to that particular club," he said.

"None of us had a girlfriend at the time.

"My brother asked if he could head out with us.

"I opted for us to go to Skye nightclub because I used to work there as a glass collector and did PR for them when I was at university."

That Thursday evening Adam, then aged 21, said the trio had a few beers in the downstairs bar before heading upstairs for an enjoyable night at the now defunct Howard Street club.

The unprovoked attack occurred while they were waiting for a taxi at around 1.30am.

Belfast Crown Court later heard that the man who punched Aaron once to the side of the head, instantly rendering him unconscious, had been headbutted by someone as he was leaving the bar.

The attacker was mistakenly told by a friend that it was Aaron who had assaulted him.

"Our taxi was coming and just as I was saying goodbye to the bouncers I heard a thud; I turned round and my brother was lying at my feet," Adam recalled.

"No one saw it coming.

"It happened so quickly."

Adam said he fondly recalls a conversation with his older brother just prior to the incident that contained the last words Aaron ever spoke to him. "We were coming down the stairs and I remember Aaron putting his arm around me and saying: 'Another brilliant night's craic, bro'.

"We'd got ourselves a seat in the VIP area, so we'd somewhere to go, sit together, chill and chat.

"We'd had fun."

Just minutes later fatally injured Aaron was being rushed to hospital by ambulance, with Adam and their friend Dean following in a taxi.

"He was dead straight away - I don't know how I knew that, but I knew," said Adam.

"People were telling me to calm down and that he'd be fine... they said he'd just been knocked out, but I replied: 'My brother's dead, I know he is'."

He added: "I remember screaming and shouting and going a bit mad.

"I was yelling: 'Help me'.

"I was trying to get him to come round but he wasn't coming round, obviously... even though I knew he was dead, I was holding him in my arms and pleading with him to come back to me."

Adam vividly remembers running into Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital that night to ask where his brother was.

"A door to the side opened and there was a nurse standing there," he recalled.

"She invited Dean and I to come in.

"I kept asking if he was okay but she said he wasn't okay and that she said she was sorry, that there was nothing they could do."

In the depths of his own grief a distraught Adam somehow found the wherewithal to call his parents and tell them to come to the Royal immediately.

"It hit me so hard. I phoned the house in the early hours of the morning and Mum answered," he said.

"I just told them to get to the hospital as soon as they could.

"That was all I could say.

"I couldn't tell them the whole story over the phone."

Around 3am Adam - who broke down in tears due to the pain of recounting the worst day of his life - saw his mum, dad and sister walking through the doors of the waiting room.

"They had feared the worst," he said.

"I just remember being on my knees crying, waiting for them.

"When they arrived, Mum, Dad and Rachel hugged me."

After spending a little time with Aaron, the Montgomery family returned home while Adam and Dean were taken to a police station to give statements.

"We must have been there for hours... it felt like forever," he explained.

"That didn't go down well.

"Mum and Dad needed me there for them, but I wasn't."

Aaron's funeral was delayed because of the inquest into his death.

He was buried over a week later beside his grandparents Elizabeth and Edgar Montgomery.

Adam said he has no idea how his family got through the whole ordeal back then, and admitted that, 10 years on, he is still trying to come to terms with it.

"It was awful but I remember thinking at the time that I had to be strong for Mum, Dad, my sister and my granny Lina (now 84)," he said.

"I didn't think about myself for a long time.

"I was too worried about everyone else."

It's on days like June 5, 2015 - when he married dental nurse Rebecca (31) - that Adam misses Aaron most.

"I think about him every day but on special occasions like that it hurts even more," he said.

"He was remembered in our speeches at the wedding reception at Ballygally Castle but, unfortunately, he never got to meet Rebecca, who has been my rock since Aaron's death."

Queen's University student Ciaran Laverty (then aged 19) pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Aaron.

He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and served 12 months.

The family felt the crime merited a much lengthier sentence, but Adam said it's not something he dwells on.

"It wasn't really justice in our eyes, but Aaron had been taken from us and nothing was going to bring him back," he said.

"I don't worry about the bad things. You could drive yourself crazy thinking negative thoughts."

He added: "I always say to myself that everyone has a sad story to tell and mine is only one of many. I just try to remember Aaron in the best way I can."

On October 5 Adam and a friend are setting out to trek Machu Picchu in Peru to raise £10,000 to support the Helping Hand Charity for Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in memory of Aaron.

They will finish their fundraising expedition on October 12 - what would have been Aaron's 34th birthday.

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