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'Our hearts go out to Noah Donohoe's family,' says Dean McIlwaine dad reliving dark days of search for son

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Dean's father Rod

Dean's father Rod

Dean McIlwaine

Dean McIlwaine

Search and rescue teams in north Belfast look for missing Noah Donohoe

Search and rescue teams in north Belfast look for missing Noah Donohoe

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Dean's father Rod

The continuing search for missing teenager Noah Donohoe has brought painful memories into even sharper focus for a Belfast father who was in the same helpless situation three years ago.

Dean McIlwaine, a 22-year-old hairdresser from Glengormley, had disappeared on July 13, 2017, and for nine long days his father Rod was left praying for the best as the search for his son carried him on an emotional roller-coaster.

For the McIlwaine family, the unfolding nightmare being endured by the family and friends of 14-year-old Noah - who left his home in south Belfast on June 21 at approximately 5.30pm on his black Apollo mountain bike and hasn't been seen since 6.11pm that same Sunday evening - has brought echoes of their own loss rising to the surface again.

The McIlwaine family's nightmare ended in tragedy, with the body of Dean discovered at Cavehill on July 22, and while Rod said his family's hearts go out to Noah's relations and that they are hoping and praying he is found safe and well, he knows only too well what they are going through.

"This Saturday will be three years to the day since Dean was best man at a family wedding in Cyprus," said Rod.

"Those should be happy memories, but every year we go through the nightmare again. It never gets any easier.

"We're watching another family go through it and it's difficult. This is all happening at the same time of year and it's heartbreaking to watch someone else go through the same pain as we did.

"Our hearts go out to them."

It's all very close to home for the McIlwaine family. They see the community gather to search in the same way.

They see the appeals across social media, very similar to the appeals that were put out by the family and friends of their own beloved son.

Dean McIlwaine was a young man who seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. On the verge of opening his own barber shop, he had secured a position teaching barbering at Belfast Met. He was also in the process of moving into a new house with his girlfriend, Demi-jo McMahon.

But in the blink of an eye, with no warning this time three years ago, Rod and his wife Karen found themselves making their own emotional appeals. The last confirmed sighting of Dean had been at the Co-op garage on Carnmoney Road on the outskirts of Glengormley.

He had left the shop at 1pm on a Thursday afternoon and had not been seen since. His mobile phone had been switched off and he had not used his bank cards since withdrawing £30 from a cash machine on the day he went missing. "He has literally been plucked off the face of the earth, vanished without a trace," the distraught couple said in the days after his disappearance.

"As the days go on, you can't help think the worst. Some days are positive, some days aren't, but he has to be somewhere, where is anybody's guess - it's a nightmare and your emotions take you everywhere." Three years on, the pain of that experience is still raw in the voice of a father who lost a son.

"It was the same time of year, the start of the summer, when we were thrown into the media spotlight but we would have done anything to find Dean," he said.

"It's hard to deal with but you just do. All you want is news, someone to have seen something that keeps you going. You're carried through it all in a blur," he said.

Three years on and the McIlwaine family still grieve for their son.

They remember the community gathering for searches. They remember the efforts of police and emergency services. They see it all happening again. This time it's a different name in the headlines, and Rod said he and his family are praying for a different outcome.

"This has brought everything back for us all in the public domain, though we do go through it as a family ever year," he said. "It's a terrible thing to have to deal with.

"The feelings never leave you and we are hoping and praying Noah's family get a better outcome than we did."

Belfast Telegraph