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Noah's family left grief-stricken at tragic conclusion to search for missing schoolboy

Claire McNeilly


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Search and rescue teams hunting for Noah Donohoe near York Road in Belfast

Search and rescue teams hunting for Noah Donohoe near York Road in Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Search and rescue teams hunting for Noah Donohoe near York Road in Belfast

It was the saddest of conclusions to a story that has gripped Northern Ireland.

The tragic news that everyone involved in the desperate search for Noah Donohoe hoped would not come was announced shortly after 1pm this afternoon.

A simple, four-line police statement, confirming that a body, believed to be that of the schoolboy, had been found.

Urging people to avoid “unhelpful” speculation, it said officers were providing support to Noah’s family “at this very difficult time”.

The baffling disappearance of the 14-year-old sparked days of intensive, forensic searches of a large area, involving police, specialist teams and hundreds, if not thousands, of concerned members of the public.

At 9.45am this morning, in the North Belfast area, it ended in the most tragic circumstances.

Noah Donohoe

The waking nightmare for Noah’s heartbroken mum, Fiona Donohoe, and the rest of her family began last Sunday evening when Noah, a pupil at St Malachy’s College on the Antrim road, failed to return to his south Belfast home after venturing out on his black Apollo mountain bike around 5.30pm that afternoon.

He had his mobile phone with him but wasn’t answering his mother’s calls. This was not like Noah, an intelligent, thoughtful teenager.

As every parent would, Fiona became frantic with worry and eventually called the police, who on Monday told the press that a young boy was missing.

Like other media outlets, we reported the story but, at that stage, it wasn’t major news.

Young people, especially those in Noah’s age bracket, go absent without leave in Northern Ireland all the time.

There is usually a simple explanation for it – such as the legacy of a row with their parents, a lost phone, or even just teenage thoughtlessness – but after 48 hours it was clear that Noah’s case was different, and deeply concerning.

Police issued an updated appeal for information, local people had already taken to the streets to look for him and a distraught Fiona posted a heart-rending appeal for help in locating him, insisting that her only child’s behaviour was completely out of character.

“My heart is broken,” she wrote on Facebook, adding: “I am begging people do this. I know I am asking a massive thing but, if you knew my Noah, he was the most thoughtful loving darling who does not deserve to be suffering or unfound.

“Please hear my plea I am speaking for Noah, my baby...”

By Tuesday afternoon, and with scores of local residents out combing the area alongside police and Community Rescue Service (CRS) volunteers, detectives said they were working on the theory that Noah had fallen off his bicycle in the vicinity of Queen Street/York Street, injured his head and may have been be wandering around in a disorientated state.

“We believe Noah got back on his bicycle, cycling into Northwood Road where he then abandons all his clothing, as he is seen a short time later cycling while naked,” said Superintendent Muir Clark, who is leading the police investigation into the teen’s disappearance.

“Noah then dropped his bicycle and left the area on foot.”

Since lockdown, there has been a huge increase in the number of people cycling on our streets but, as a distraught Fiona asked me on the phone on Wednesday – just before she made her first, and so far only, public appearance – how on earth could you miss a young naked boy on a bike?

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Noah’s mother Fiona has thanked the community for their help

Noah’s mother Fiona has thanked the community for their help

PA

Noah’s mother Fiona has thanked the community for their help

Fiona, flanked by Noah’s aunts Shona and Niamh, looked pale, gaunt and understandably nervous as she braved the press conference at PSNI Musgrave Street. She let others do the talking.

It is a well-worn phrase that this is “a parent’s worst nightmare”, but that doesn’t make it untrue, and one look at Noah’s distraught, traumatised mother that Wednesday afternoon tells you she is the living embodiment of it.

The missing boy’s bike, phone, khaki green North Face jacket, tie-dye hoody and sweat shorts were quickly recovered, but there was no sign of his rucksack, which had a Lenovo laptop in it.

By now, Noah’s face was prominent on all news outlets. And north Belfast residents had set aside tribal differences rekindled by recent sectarian strife in Grove Playing Fields to display remarkable collective resolve in finding Noah.

Volunteers gathered at the notorious Limestone Road interface to get instructions from search team leaders while the Hubb Centre, on the Shore Road, offered refreshments for those searching houses, sheds, derelict buildings, back alleys and woodland.

CRS member Kerry Whitehouse, who had been out until 2am on Wednesday, told me during the third full day of searching: “We’re trained not to get emotionally involved, but I have a 14-year-old daughter at home. It’s hard not to think about that.”

A former teacher of the schoolboy, who also joined in the search, said they were determined to reunite Noah with his loved ones.

Speaking from another part of the search Caity Brown, who taught Noah while was on placement as a music teacher, said he was "a fantastic cello player and a usual teenage boy".

"We are basically just here doing our bit to bring Noah home to his friends and family," she said.

"I know everyone is so worried... it is absolutely phenomenal, seeing our communities come together to find a child. Because there is nothing more important than that."

Police divers, meanwhile, crawled through drains and sewers, as a PSNI helicopter provided eyes in the sky.

On Thursday, the warmest day of the year so far, the frenzied activity of the previous three days had been noticeably scaled down, in order to assist a more professional, forensic search.

Speaking to this newspaper, Fiona passed on her heartfelt thanks to everyone who had answered her call for help.

“The community has really come together during the search and it has been a great comfort,” she said.

“Noah was all about community. If Noah was here and a child had gone missing, he would have been the first person out looking for them. That’s the kind of boy he is.”

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Superintendent Muir Clark

Superintendent Muir Clark

Stephen Hamilton

Superintendent Muir Clark

Sadly, it seemed as if nothing that might lead to Noah’s whereabouts had been uncovered.

Police, meanwhile, expressed their concern on Thursday about “unhelpful rumours” being spread on social media, with Supt Clark maintaining it was “still very much a missing person enquiry.”

He also made a specific appeal for the recovery of Noah’s rucksack – which was answered courtesy of a phone call from a member of the public who had come across it, still with the laptop inside, at an unspecified place in north Belfast.

On Friday, police hailed this as perhaps the most significant development so far in a case that has gripped, intrigued but mostly touched people far beyond these shores.

By now, the search had been expanded to cover parts of Belfast city centre, in some cases going over old ground.

As Sean McCarry, head of operations at the CRS, told me: “We are expanding our search slowly and methodically to wider areas, although we also keep looking behind. We’re bearing in mind that people can come into an area that has already been searched.”

This afternoon, though, came the saddest of updates from the PSNI.

A 1.15pm statement read: “Police can confirm that a body was recovered in the North Belfast area just before 9.45am today. Officers believe it is the missing teenager Noah Donohoe and are continuing to provide support to his family at this very difficult time.

“Enquiries are continuing and there are no further details at this stage.

“Please refrain from speculation as this is not helpful.”

For now, so many questions remain unanswered.

What was a 14-year-old boy from the south of the city doing in that particular area of north Belfast? Yes, he attends school not far away but St Malachy’s has been off limits for months.

Had he been planning to meet someone, did he have a rendezvous – and, if so, with whom?

If he already had his phone with him that Sunday evening, why would he have felt the need to bring along a laptop as well?

In time these questions may be answered.

For now, the family of Noah Donohoe are left heartbroken at the most tragic of conclusions.

Belfast Telegraph