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25th May 2023

‘Birthday surprise’ resulted in son opening up his business to find his mum and sister dead

Steve Hopkins

‘I opened the van door and saw my mum and sister and for an instant thought they had fallen asleep’

A fatal error led to the deaths of a mum and daughter who were trying to decorate a burger van as a birthday surprise, an inquest has been told.

The bodies of Leah Churchill, 50, and her 17-year-old daughter Brooke Wanstall were found by Brooke’s brother, and Leah’s son, Tyla, when he opened the van on his 26th birthday.

The pair had been overcome by carbon monoxide after they started up a generator inside the van as they decorated it ahead of Tyla’s birthday.

The pair had gone to the Meet ‘n’ Greet snack wagon, which was parked off a road in Whitstable, Kent, on the night of February 13, to decorate it with balloons and banners as a surprise for Tyler when he opened-up for work the following day.

But when they started up a petrol generator for either lighting or heat they were quickly overcome with fumes.

Instead of a happy scene, Tyla, who owns the van, made the horrific discovery of the lifeless bodies of his mum and sister.

A birthday card had been left on the side.

A toxicology test revealed the pair had fatal levels of carbon monoxide in their system.

Tyla, from Faversham in Kent, called emergency services but his mother and sister could not be saved.

Detective Sergeant Zak Foote, who investigated the scene, confirmed there was no third-party involvement.

He said it appeared that “one or the other” had started the petrol generator, which was in an enclosed space, “unaware that they would be overcome by carbon monoxide”.

Foote said he did not believe it was the intention of Leah or Brooke to take their own lives and concluded their deaths had been accidental.

Assistant coroner Catherine Wood said it was not a health and safety issue as neither of them were at work at the time of the tragedy.

She said: “My only conclusion is that their deaths were accidental – most likely due to the generator having been turned on in an enclosed space.”

None of the family attended the hearing.

The Valentine’s Day tragedy sparked an outpouring of grief and sorrow with Tyla issuing a warning over the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Speaking later the same day, he said: “They were decking the van out inside in balloons and bunting as a birthday surprise for me, like my mum would do at home every year.

“I didn’t even know they were going down there but she must have started the petrol generator for power to keep warm without realising the danger.”

Tyla said the generator was used outside the van during working hours but kept inside overnight for security reasons.

He had arrived at the wagon at about 8am to start work and was surprised to see his mum’s car parked up outside.

He recalled: “I opened the van door and saw my mum and sister and for an instant thought they had fallen asleep.

“I smelt fumes but it just didn’t register straight away but it became obvious they were both dead. “

Tyler said it was “heartbreaking to think they spent their last few moments just trying to put a smile on my face”.

“Mum made a fatal mistake and we don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he added.

“Be aware of this thing, people. If you haven’t got a carbon monoxide alarm go and get one. It is a serious killer.”

The day after the tragedy, hundreds of friends, family and sympathisers gathered on the beach at Herne Bay for an emotional mass balloon release in memory of Leah and Brooke

Speaking at the gathering, the 26-year-old fought back tears as he embraced those who had travelled to pay their respects to his mum and “beautiful baby sister”.

He said: “We’re overwhelmed and blown away by the huge support and kindness we’ve been shown.

“Quite honestly, it’s kept us going when we’re all in a very dark place.”

There were emotional scenes as music loved by the mum and daughter was played, with the crowd toasting Leah’s life with her favourite drink, vodka.

Two appeals to help with the cost of their joint funerals also raised almost £20,000.

Leah, 50, lived in Canterbury, Kent. She was a mum of four, leaving behind another daughter, Ocean, 23, and 12-year-old son Sonny.

Tyla, who recently had a baby boy with his partner Beth, added: “She was so kind and would do anything for anyone.

“She would take a homeless man in off the streets if she was allowed. Brooke was just a live-wire with a huge personality.

“Mum worked all over the place, mostly in hospitality, and used to run the Share and Coulter pub in Greenhill.

“She was helping me in the burger van a couple of days a week.”

Brooke, from Westgate-on-Sea, had just left school in Canterbury after completing her GCSEs.

Tyla said: “She had her whole life in front of her.

“She did really well in her grades and had just started work as a carer, which she was really enjoying.

“She was also due to take her driving test next week.”

Brooke’s sister, Ocean, added: “She tried working in the van a couple of times but that definitely wasn’t for her.

“Working as a carer was what put the spring in her step and the only thing she wanted to do.”

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