Teen who drowned on rugby trip only reported missing after team returned to hotel

Harry Sykes from Clayton Heights, Bradford, died after going swimming with friends in Lake Cavayere, which is near the medieval town of Carcassonne in southern France

Harry had last been seen alive entering the water at around 1.30pm on September 5, 2018

The mother of a teenage boy who died while on a rugby tour in France told how she “screamed and cried” when she heard the news of her son’s death.

Harry Sykes, 16, of Clayton Heights, Bradford, was on tour in the South of France with his club Halifax Elite Rugby Academy when he died on Wednesday, September 5, 2018, an inquest heard on Monday.

He had gone swimming at lunchtime with pals in Lake Cavayere, which is near the medieval town of Carcassonne in southern France.

Harry had swum with a small group to some rocks and had then been seen playing volleyball in the water. Coroner’s officer Jayne Dawson said Harry had last been seen alive entering the water at around 1.30pm.

The hearing at Bradford Coroner’s Court heard the popular teenager who dreamed of turning professional, missed the coach back to the hotel and was later found drowned.

It was several hours before tour leaders realized the boy was missing.

Harry was described as a popular teenager who dreamed of becoming a professional rugby player


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Harry’s mother, Natasha Burton, told senior coroner Martin Fleming her son had been happy and excited as he prepared to join his 30-odd team-mates on the coach.

The trip, which set off from Brighouse Sports and Social Club, was designed as a “bonding session”, Mrs Burton said.

Her son, who had been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder and autistic tendencies, was “very excited” to go.

Philip Simms, counsel to the inquest, asked her how on the evening of 5 September 2018 she became aware that something was wrong.

She replied that Lee Greenwood, who ran the academy along with his brother Gareth, phoned her at 7pm UK time to say they couldn’t find her son.

At the time, she said, Mr Greenwood told her Harry could have got on the wrong bus or got lost.

Harry’s stepfather Mr Burton told the inquest that after learning Harry was missing, he used the Find My Friends app and discovered Harry’s phone was at a beach area on the lake.

“That showed his phone was not where Harry was,” Mr Burton said.

He told the coroner he spoke several times to Lee and Gareth Greenwood, who said they were going back to the lake to see if Harry was still there, and later told him divers were going to search the lake.

Mr Burton said: “That’s when the magnitude of what was happening started to sink in.”

Later that night, at 11pm, Mrs Burton was informed that Harry’s body had been recovered by divers.

She said “he called back to say they had found him and were bringing him out.

“I screamed, cried and hung up,” she said.

Both Lee and Gareth visited her home over subsequent days and told her how sorry they were about what had happened.

West Yorkshire senior coroner Martin Fleming said Harry’s family had “raised concerns about how the trip was organized and supervised”, which would be looked at during the hearing.

Ahead of the inquest, Harry’s mother Natasha Burton said the trip was “poorly planned” and that “supervision at the lake was inadequate.”

Her statement, released through solicitors Ison Harrison, said: “Unbeknown to me at the time, two adults took 38 minors on this trip.”

Mrs Burton told the inquest Harry had been playing rugby since the age of eight or nine, and his dream was to play professionally.

She said he had also had private swimming lessons as a child and described his swimming ability as “excellent”.

Mrs Burton told the inquest Harry had been offered a place at the Halifax Elite Rugby Academy after being handed a leaflet for the college at his rugby club.

Mrs Burton said Gareth told them Harry had been in the water playing volleyball and he “remembered him swimming off to the side”.

Mrs Burton said she had been told that a post-mortem report said Harry had drowned and that he “had a virus that no-one knew about”.

The court also heard that on September 27 Mrs Burton was contacted on Facebook by a woman called Nicola Cohen.

Mrs Cohen said there were “red flags” in her mind regarding what happened on that day and an alleged lack of supervision.

She added that she was told there had been another serious incident the previous year involving the academy when a “boy nearly drowned.”

The hearing continues and is expected to last the best part of two weeks.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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