Police open manslaughter probe after British tourist killed in horrific boat crash
Family describes mother-of-one Jess Wilkes (27) as 'larger than life' after death on river Rhone near Avignon
An architect's PA died in a boat crash in France during her boss's birthday party as police launched a manslaughter investigation.
Jess Wilkes (27) died on Saturday night after she fell into the river Rhone at Avignon as she was returning to her accommodation after a dinner with her boyfriend and other friends in a picturesque riverside restaurant.
An autopsy on the London-based mother-of-one is due to be carried out on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in Avignon said.
Police are investigating whether the skipper of the river boat was responsible for the death after it collided with a metal post.
The skipper’s leg was broken in the collision and he is currently in hospital, the prosecutor’s spokeswoman said.
“It appears that he saw the post (a navigation mark in the river) too late and was unable to avoid it,” she said, adding that the three other Britons and two French tourists on the boat would also be interviewed by police.
Ms Wilkes’ parents, who live in Tunbridge Wells, paid tribute to their “loving daughter, caring sister and proud mother to Alissia, five.”
“She was a social butterfly who made everyone around her feel special and had an infectious energy and passion that she applied to everything in life,” they said in a statement.
Ms Wilkes, a PA at an architect’s firm who was educated at the £30,000 a year Kent College in Pembury, had flown over to France with friends to celebrate the 33rd birthday of her boss, who is believed to have family members living in the Avignon area.
The group dined on Saturday night at the Guinguette du Vieux Moulin, a picturesque restaurant on the far bank of the Rhone with a terrace right on the water’s edge.
Then at around 10:45 pm local time they boarded the 22-foot shuttle boat to take them back to Avignon, which by road lies only a couple of miles from the restaurant.
What happened next is the focus of the manslaughter inquiry. Police will try to determine if the skipper was going too fast, had drunk alcohol, and whether the boat was properly equipped for a night trip.
The victim’s tearful mother Susanna said from her home in Tunbridge Wells: “It is such a dreadful accident. She was thrown over the front of the boat and straight into the bollard.”
“All I am thankful for is that she did not suffer. She had such a bad injury to her head,” she said.
Rescue workers also said that it appeared that Ms Wilkes had been knocked unconscious in the collision and then drowned when she fell into the water.
Dozens of rescuers were sent to the scene and a sniffer dog searched the banks of the Rhone for Ms Wilkes while divers hunted in the waters of the river.
“After about three hours, divers found her body on the bottom of the river at a depth of about six metres, several dozen metres downstream from where the accident took place,” a rescue official said.
Ms Wilkes’ mother said she did not believe alcohol was a factor in the crash.
“There is some talk that maybe it is suspicious but none of the party were drinkers and I think they were fine… It was just a very civilised meal, it wasn’t some big party, and then they were coming back in the boat when it happened.”
She said the man skippering the boat was an experienced sailor who had navigated up and down that stretch of the Rhone countless times.
The victim’s father, Bernard, and her older brother Christopher are currently on their way to Avignon.
Miss Wilkes’ other brother, Phillip (25) said that his sister’s daughter was being cared for by her former partner with whom she had an amicable relationship.