'It took just 15 minutes for my life to end and my existence to begin' - mum tells how ex-husband killed their two boys
“It took just 15 minutes for my life to end and my existence to begin.”
“He picked the boys up, he put a bowl of sweets up in the attic and the boys had gone straight up to the attic. And while they were up there, my ex-husband set 14 individual fires, barricaded the home, barricaded the kitchen, and made sure not only could no one get in, but the boys would never be able to get out either. And then he set the fires and went up to the attic.”
These are the harrowing words of Claire Throssell, who spoke to RTE Radio 1’s Ryan Tubridy this morning about how her ex-husband set fire to his home and killed himself and their two children Jack (12) and Paul (9).
Darren Sykes, who had emotionally abused Claire throughout their 16-year relationship, had five hours access to their children granted by the family courts, despite Claire's evidence that he had previously threatened to kill them and himself. The boys had been spending two of those hours with him on the night of the fire, October 22, 2014.
“That particular Wednesday I dropped them off at school in the morning. Just as normal, I would say ‘love you’, and every morning they would say back ‘to infinity and beyond’. And that particular morning when I dropped my eldest off at school, he’d always take that extra look back to make sure that I was still there, and that day, he took an extra look back for some reason and walked into school.”
“I dropped my youngest off and that was completely different, running off down into the playground, just throwing the words behind him. But they were the last words we ever spoke to each other.”
“I was at work. [Sykes] knew it was the best time to do anything because I worked late. I was trying to better myself and do a job in teacher training so that I could give them a better future.”
“He’d started putting a train track in the attic because Paul loved trains, and Paul was the one that really, really didn’t want to go to see him. The first time I thought, maybe he’s making an effort for the boys and they were quite looking forward to seeing the trains.”
“He sent them a message that morning to say I’ve got two new trains, I just need two new drivers.”
Claire and Sykes had been separated for some time, and they had been fighting a custody battle for their two young boys. The mum-of-two said she eventually decided to leave Sykes when he’d insulted her “one time too many”. She brought her two boys to live with her and her mother in a nearby village in Yorkshire, in the UK.
“He’d done one insult too many, and the boys were distraught and I just thought I’m not doing my boys any favours. I didn’t want my two boys to think that that was the way you treat people in a relationship. But you are frightened for your children, and it’s not easy when they have financial control to just suddenly leave because you want to support your children and leave so that you can keep your children safe and financially stable and that’s not always possible.”
“I warned the courts that he was capable of harming [the boys] and even killing them. He even said before that he understood why fathers took their children’s lives. And he even tried to commit suicide in the June so I was pushing really hard for him not to have any access to the children, but the courts granted five hours access.”
The night a policeman knocked on her door, she knew Sykes had done something horrible, she told Tubridy.
“I saw the look on his face, and I said ‘what’s happened? He said there’s been an incident at the home, there’s been a fire, and you need to come with me right now.”
“I was taken to Sheffield Children’s Hospital and I went to the resus room. The police officer did a handbrake turn in the carpark and said ‘go, go’, so I ran through the doors, and I could see Paul, and I could see they were doing CPR on him.”
“The doctors turned and said ‘are you mum?’. I said ‘yes’. They said ‘we are going to stop resuscitating now, and I held him in my arms. His hair was wet with my tears.”
“I just held him so tight, and I made a promise to him that no other parent would have to hold their child in their arms as they died, knowing it’s at the hands of someone who should love him and protect him just as much as me.”
“After Paul had died. I had to make the worst decision in my life. You never choose between your children, and they said that I had to leave Paul in Sheffield, and go with Jack to Manchester to the burns specialist unit.”
Jack had 56pc burns on his body, third degree burns.
“He needed me... I said to the police, please sit with [Paul], he’s only nine, he’s not old enough to be on his own.”
“For five days, [Jack] fought so hard to stay but on the fifth day, he’d been in theatre for about 16 hours that day, and he’d come out of theatre and he’d been battling in theatre, and unfortunately the burns had built up the potassium in his heart, and it just stopped his heart.”
“Again, I had to hold him in my arms at just 12 years old and say that ‘I loved him, and he was taking my heart, the rest of my soul, and I would do everything I could to keep other children safe and not waste the courage that he had for those five days, and for trying to save his brother.”
The fire officers who tried to save Jack and Paul that evening told Claire that Jack had tried to save his younger brother.
“Jack tried to get his brother out. He tried to save his brother. He could have run away but he didn’t. He stayed, and it cuts me in two to know that Paul felt Jack’s hands, not mine, and it was Jack’s strength that pulled him to the end of the hatch where the attic opened, not me, and he unfortunately fell through into the flames.”
“And as he lay there on the floor, the fireman cradled him so gently. Jack used his courage and he said to the fireman, ‘my Dad did this and he did it on purpose’, and they took those words as my son’s dying testimony.”
“He also told the fireman and the doctor in the hospital before they sedated him and he fell asleep. He never knew that Paul fell asleep first… he never knew that Paul didn’t make it.”
Ever since that horrific night, Claire has been campaigning for the process in the UK family courts to change and for abusers to be denied automatic access to their children.
“I want to raise awareness of emotional control and coercive control. I want people to talk about it and not just brush it under the carpet.”
“It happens everywhere and if people talk about it, and admit that there are problems, then maybe just maybe, no child will have to go through what Jack went through and no child will have to say to an emergency service person, that my mum or my dad did this, and they did it on purpose.”
When they first met, Sykes had been romantic, but later he turned into a monster, Claire told Tubridy.
“He sent a rose every day to work until I agreed to go out with him.”
Claire finally agreed, and the pair were married a year later.
“Then after that he turned into a complete monster,” she told
“It starts very slowly; it kind of drips into the relationship. I think it was after Jack was born. I used to get about 40 phone calls a day from him, asking where I was, what I was doing. I was stalked within a marriage basically.”
“He was jealous of the boys, put me down… that really was the turning point of the relationship… about how you look, how you parent the children, little things that you can’t quite put your finger on but they start adding up. You look in the mirror and you don’t recognise the person that’s looking back at you.”
“He used to do it in front of the boys, and the boys used to say, ‘why are you saying that to mum?’ and he’d say cos it’s true. So he’d use them as weapons as well, to try and turn them against me too but that would never happen, because the boys just loved me and couldn’t accept what their dad was saying about me.”
“The main thing is isolation. They isolate you from your family, from your friends. Your marriage becomes a lonely, most scary, place to be.”
“He’d say it was all me (Claire), it was all my fault. Never anything was his fault. It gets to a point where you believe that, and you think well if I hadn’t have said that, then he wouldn’t have reacted that way, and they have a way of turning every conversation around so that it’s never their fault.”
In January, Claire handed in a petition to Downing Street calling for children's safety to be put first by the family courts.
If you’ve been affected by this story, you can call Women’s Aid Ireland’s 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900