The worst grief we could have
A distraught Ulster father was today planning an emotional journey to Russia to bring home the body of his eldest son, who plunged more than 40 feet to his death.
Matthew Howell (22), from Castlerock, died instantly two days ago when he lost his grip on a stairwell and fell four floors from an apartment block onto a concrete surface below.
The St Andrews student - who was on placement in St Petersburg as part of his undergraduate language course - was killed in front of a close friend, who could only helplessly look on.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph today, heartbroken Colin Howell (49) spoke warmly of his "role model" son.
"There is too much about Matthew to miss. There can't be a worse grief than losing your son, especially so far away," he said.
"I had intended to go to St Petersburg on Tuesday, but it wasn't possible because of complications. I've been in touch with the diplomatic service and I'm now scheduled to go tomorrow. There is a lot of bureaucracy to deal with."
Matthew's parents Colin and American-born stepmother Kyle (39) hope to bring their son's body home without delay.
"In a big sense, Matthew was an excellent role model for our other nine children. He was a son who honoured me, who I'm proud of. He brought honour to our family. And that is something I often said when he was alive."
A police investigation into the accident, which happened early on Monday, is ongoing.
"We found out what happened on Monday," said Colin, a dental implants specialist.
"Matthew's friend Geoff was leaving the building when he heard Matt call from above. He looked up the stairwell to see Matt's legs dangling over the central well.
"At first he thought Matt was typically goofing around but another call for help made him realise the situation was serious. Geoff ran up the stairs as quickly as possible to help but, to his horror, watched helplessly as Matt lost his grip and fell over 40 feet to the concrete floor below."
As yet, however, Colin does not know how his son was killed.
"Police have found a lot of very old buildings and some loose and bent bars. There is speculation that Matt's grip may have caught on the way down," he said.
"Geoff is devastated. I've spoken to his father since the accident and we've been supporting each other."
Support from friends, family and the local community has been important for the Howell family, especially Matthew's nine siblings - Lauren (20), Dylan (18), Daniel (17), Katie (16), Jonny (16), Erik (9), Jorgen (6), Jensen (3) and Finn (18 months)
"There have been lots of tears," said Kyle, a full-time mum.
"They seem to be coping, but only time will tell if they're really coping. It's hard to think that Finn - our youngest - won't see him again. Finn looks so much like Matthew and now all he has left is photos of them together."
Over the last 48 hours, Colin added that his faith had been a source of comfort.
"Faith is getting us through this. People ask 'why'; it's the eternal question. We trust God with understanding more than we do. Not everyone will understand that, but some will."
He added: "I trust God. I believe that with God there are no accidents. That gives me a grief and a certain comfort."
Matthew was president of the Christian Union at Dalriada School, Ballymoney, and spent 10 months in Uruguay with Operation Mobilisation, a Christian organisation.
One close friend and former Dalraida classmate, Leanne Dunlop, last night described Matthew as "an amazing guy".
"He has left a legacy. He touched more lives in his 22 years than many people manage to in their lives. For me personally, he was a source of inspiration, encouragement and support over the years. He will be severely missed."
Ryan Wilson, one of Matthew's lifelong friends, said it was difficult to find words.
"He was the best mate anyone could have had," he said.