DEREK Burns’ wish to see his son alive again has ended in heartbreak, but he says the news has given his family a crumb of comfort.
For 23 years, Derek Burns and his wife clung to a fading hope that one day they would see their son again.
But decades of barren searches and fruitless missing persons campaigns came to an abrupt end when forensics finally identified the remains of Derek jnr in an unmarked grave containing several anonymous bodies.
His body is now set to be repatriated to Scotland for a funeral where his family will be able to pay their last respects.
Now 74, his elderly father said their greatest fear had been going to the grave ignorant of what happened to their “jolly boy”.
Although when it came the news was bleak, the family found solace in answers.
“We have waited a long time for this to happen and I know it sounds a bit unusual but it’s a big relief in some ways,” he said. “We are not getting any younger, and it has gone on and on for 23 years now. We have looked and searched, waiting for something to happen.
“We were starting to think we would go to our grave without ever knowing, but now we have an answer.”
It was 1989 when Derek jnr left his West Calder home, seemingly on a whim.
A dull, overcast day had brightened up and the 20-year-old with a passion for heavy metal music, who was struggling to find work, had slipped out, taking little but the clothes on his back.
The former West Calder High School pupil was never to return home.
Mr Burns said: “The morning he went missing I was going to the Borders and popped into his room to see if he would like to come with me.
“The weather was awful and he said ‘no thanks Dad’, so I said OK and left. He did not appear for dinner that night or contact us, which was very unusual for him.”
Shortly after his disappearance, a man’s body was found close to West Hampstead railway station.
He had been killed by a train but, lacking any means of obvious identification, the incident was declared non-suspicious and an open verdict recorded following an inquest.
In March this year the case was reopened, and renewed inquiries by the British Transport Police revealed that Derek Burns had visited his girlfriend near the scene of the rail tragedy in 1989 and she had ended the relationship.
The body was exhumed and its DNA was taken and matched those of his family.
Now the body of the missing 20-year-old will finally return home.
Mr Burns said his son’s ashes will be scattered at West Lothian Crematorium.
“Relief is about the nearest word you are going to get for it,” said Mr Burns. “I don’t think the English language is particularly good on the subject.
“I know it sounds rather corny, but it’s like we are bringing him back and we know where he is.
“It’s a comfort to know that he’ll be there.”
Mr Burns said the lingering doubt had been a gnawing pain like an “emotional toothache”.
“You always wonder, ‘has he been hurt somewhere? Has he been in hospital somewhere?’ All these things go through your mind all the time, but we had never given up hope – all the time there was a possibility, you never give up hope. After all this time logic tells you otherwise, but I have known people when doing walks for missing persons who said that people have come out of the woodwork after 20 years.
“So you always have that little element of hope, but there’s never a day goes by when Derek didn’t come to mind. It becomes almost part of your life, it’s hard to describe.
“Funny enough, the pain doesn’t subside with time – in some respects it gets worse. As you get older you think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to know’, and ‘we are going to go to our graves without ever knowing any answers’ which would have been the worst of the lot.”
Detective Chief Inspector Simon Taylor, who spearheaded the inquiry, said: “The man’s death in West Hampstead was fully investigated at the time and all possible lines of inquiry were followed up to try to establish his identity, but without success.
“However, the piecing together of clues and other circumstantial evidence led us to the theory that the man was Derek Burns, with DNA profiling confirming his identity.
He added: “Derek Burns’ family will clearly have many unanswered questions about what took place that day, and about the circumstances leading up to Derek’s death, but we hope this will provide them with some comfort, solace and ultimately a form of closure.”
The St Pancras coroner was notified last week and official records will now be amended to confirm Derek jnr’s death.
FORENSIC experts were finally able to identify Derek jnr thanks to advances in DNA testing.
Mr Burns was identified after a member of the public answered a radio appeal for information and revealed that he had been in West Hampstead, north-west London, when he disappeared – not Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, as was previously believed.
Investigators then made the link between the missing man and the unidentified man killed on the tracks and his body was exhumed and identified using DNA from his family members.
A spokesman for British Transport Police said: “In most of the cases it has been difficult to identify people because they have no identification with them and they are not in the DNA database. In the older cases, as with Mr Burns, there simply wasn’t the technology available at the time to identify him.
“We took his DNA and we then took DNA from the Burns family and it confirmed that it was a match and it was Derek Burns. It is advances in technology that has made this possible.
“Obviously this is not the best news for the family – they clearly would have harboured hopes he was still alive – but it is in some ways a form of closure for them at least.”
It is hoped the same DNA techniques could be used to finally identify a further 49 unknown people killed on the rail lines since 1975. Of these, 31 died on the London rail network between 1975 and 2010.
BTP have already named six people, including Mr Burns, who were killed but not identified.