Farm boy Harry Thomas Starrett's death in milking shed a mystery
Published 20/02/2014 | 10:00
The family of a six-year-old boy who was found dead in a farm's milking parlour are still searching for answers after an inquest failed to find a cause of death.
The reason for Harry Thomas Starrett's death at his grandfather's Co Armagh farm has been ruled as "obscure" by a coroner.
The schoolboy collapsed within 15 minutes of entering the milking parlour on July 23 last year, an inquest held at Armagh courthouse heard yesterday.
The official cause of death was recorded as "unascertained" as the inquest revealed details of two separate tests to establish whether toxic slurry fumes had been responsible proved negative.
Slurry was being mixed elsewhere on the farm that day.
However, no other underlying health conditions with the heart or brain which could explain why a "happy, healthy little boy" died could be found during a post mortem examination.
Described as "a little farmer in the making", the hearing was told there had been "strenuous attempts" to revive the unconscious youngster when he was found by his grandfather Robert. The child's father Mark, several rapid response paramedics and the emergency team at Craigavon Area Hospital all worked hard to revive Harry, but to no avail.
Both men gave evidence at the inquest of the events leading up to Harry's collapse and afterwards.
The boy had asked his grandfather for a job to do on the family's farm at Ballynahonemore Road on the afternoon of July 23 last year, having spent the day with him.
Mr Starrett snr had asked his grandson to help out preparing the milking clusters ahead of getting the cows ready for milking while he spent 10 to 15 minutes in the farm's office doing paperwork.
On entering the milking parlour, he found Harry lying "unconscious and limp" and immediately called Harry's father for help.
Harry's father broke down during his evidence as his wife Alison sobbed in the public gallery,
He told how he preformed CPR as instructed by the emergency services when he saw that his son was unresponsive after he was carried into his parents' kitchen.
A rapid response paramedic from Tower Hill Ambulance Station reported how he administered adrenaline as part of an emergency protocol to revive him. He had found him to be blue in the ears and lips and without a pulse on his examination.
A test was conducted by the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service wearing breathing apparatus approximately 45 minutes after the alarm was raised to see if there was a presence of slurry fumes. This proved negative.
Assistant State Pathologist Dr James Lynas said a blood test was conducted on Harry to check if he may have inhaled hydrogen sulfide, one of the gases that make up slurry fumes. However, this also proved negative. He recommended, in the absence of more sophisticated pathological tests to establish conclusively if the boy inhaled slurry fumes, that his immediate family be tested to see if there were any undetected heart conditions.
Health and Safety Inspectorate officer Malcolm Downey said the farm was a "very well managed one" and its use of an outside mixing unit to irrigate the slurry was "the ideal method".
Coroner Jim Kitson offered Harry's parents his condolences to "this most sad, distressing case" as he concluded the cause of death remained "obscure".
'He was lying on a mat... there was no sign of life'
Harry Starrett was a young farmer in the making – and loved nothing more than helping his grandfather out around his farm.
The six-year-old was making the most of his school holidays on July 23 last year, spending an idyllic morning with his grandparents on a fine, warm day.
The eldest of Mark and Alison Starrett's four children, he was perfectly at ease on the farm at Ballynahonemore Road, outside Armagh city.
He lived there with his brother Ben and sisters Rebecca and Phoebe close to his grandparents on the farm, constantly surrounded by those who loved him most in his short life.
The strain on his parents was clear at yesterday's inquest, but like many in the farming community, they are quietly stoic and strong in their grief.
The hearing must have been particularly difficult given that they came away with no answer to why their son died so suddenly and so young.
Harry's parents and grandparents heard at his inquest how the possibility of the little boy inhaling toxic slurry fumes could not be proved. It was highlighted that the family's farm management of the slurry mixing was a "model" of how it should be done.
Speaking after the inquest ruled the cause his death to be "unascertained", Mr Starrett said: "It still doesn't bring Harry back to us."
His wife added: "We feel like any other parents who have lost a child and don't know why.
"It wasn't a surprise to us that the inquest didn't find a cause, as we had been told that before.
"Harry was just a happy, healthy wee boy, all his wee friends at school were so sad."
The inquest into the unexplained, tragic death heard Harry joined his grandfather Robert at 10.30am, eager to be with him and happy to help out about the farm.
Described as "little farmer in the making", Harry was like many other youngsters who grow up on our farms, capable and ahead of their years.
A pupil of Lisnadill Primary School, Armagh, Harry had helped his grandfather with the milking in the morning.
The pair had gone into to Markethill to sell two calves, and he had also spent some time watching a DVD in his grandparents' home where he had lunch and eaten all his meal. Robert Starrett recalled how Harry was keen to get ahead of the afternoon milking while he had to do some work in the office. So the little boy was asked to go and get the milking clusters ready, a job he had helped out with before. Within 10 to 15 minutes he was found collapsed.
"When I found him he had four of the clusters already done. He was lying there on an old mat. He was limp, there was no life, no movement at all," said Robert (left).
"That day he never complained of any pain or sickness; there were no complaints at all from him."
Retired Church of Ireland minister Canon John McKegney, who knows the family well, said just after Harry's death: "He loved the farm, he absolutely loved the farm, really lived for it."
The minister described Harry as a "very special" child and a "bundle of joy".
At his retirement service in June 2012, he recalled Harry there "singing his little heart out in the children's choir".
He added: "He was so cheerful, one of those outgoing lovely little boys every parent would dream of having.
"He would go into a room and just talk to people, always with a smile and a laugh."
Mr McKegney added: "He was joyful – one of those boys if you gave him £1 he would give 50p of it to his brother