Coroner's warning after Gateshead boy, 5, dies playing with helium balloon in 'tragic accident'

Family photo
An inquest into the death of Karlton Noah Donaghey heard the accident was "every parent's nightmare." Credit: NCJ Media

The death of a five-year-old boy who suffocated after putting his head in a helium balloon has been ruled an accident.

An inquest into the death of Karlton Noah Donaghey heard the accident was "every parent's nightmare".

Karlton died on 29 June 2022 days on from what investigators described as a "tragic accident".

At the conclusion of the inquest, Assistant Coroner James Thompson said he would write to the public health department at Newcastle City Council asking them to consider what can be done to raise awareness of risk posed by helium balloons.

Karlton had been playing in the garden of his family's Dunston home on a sunny evening in 23 June last year when, ten minutes after he went inside, he was found unconscious in the living room.

Emergency care from a neighbour who was a nurse, along with medics from North East Ambulance Service and the Great North Air Ambulance Service kept him alive.

However, he had suffered a hypoxic brain injury and died six days later.

At an inquest at Newcastle Coroner's Court on Monday 25 September, evidence from the doctors and paramedics who treated him and the police who investigated his death was heard, while his mum Lisa also paid tribute to him.

At the beginning of the inquest, Lisa said: "I just want everyone to understand that Karlton was an incredibly precious boy. For me and Karl, he was our only child and he was precious to everyone he met. This tragic accident took him away from everyone who loved him."

Karlton was described as a "precious boy" by his parents Lisa and Karl. Credit: NCJ MEDIA

She added: "As his mum and dad we will carry him with us forever."

The inquest heard how a police investigation under the direction of Detective Chief Inspector Laura Defty of Northumbria Police had established the circumstances around Karlton's death.

He had been playing with his cousins in a paddling pool during the early evening of the day in question, before deciding to head inside to change.

When inside, he had placed a helium balloon in the shape of a dinosaur that he had been gifted from the Hoppings days earlier over his head and face.

The inquest heard Karlton loved dinosaurs, with some of his very first words thought to have been "dinosaur roar".

Ten minutes later his mum - concerned for where he might be - went inside looking for him and found him unresponsive.

Karlton loved dinosaurs and was described as having a "curious mind". Credit: Family

Asked what the conclusion of her team's investigation had been, Det Ch Insp Defty said: "This was a tragic accident and the parents were in no way to blame. These balloons can be commonly purchased, not just at the Hoppings but from other places. I don't think there's anything that could have been done to prevent this or to have stopped this from happening."

In making his formal verdict, assistant coroner Mr Thompson said: "Karlton was a five-year-old child at the time of his death and he lived with his mother and his family. He had a happy family life and was very well-loved."

He added: "He suffered asphyxia due to his head being covered by the balloon and inhaling the helium which has displaced the oxygen in his lungs."

The assistant coroner continued: "Karlton, on the balance of probability, out of curiosity or indeed in search of a moment of fun, has placed a balloon filled with helium over his head and face. He has done this while alone and having absented himself from a family gathering. He did this when going to get changed. This has allowed the helium gas to replace the oxygen in his lungs."

The coroner explained the evidence had shown the lack of oxygen had caused a severe brain injury. He continued: "I agree with the police that this was a tragic accident."

He then said: "Karlton was simply a young boy with a curious mind looking for new experiences and dare I say some fun."

Speaking to Karlton's family, the coroner further said: "I want to make it clear that no-one could have predicted what would happen to Karlton that day." He continued: "And it is every parent's nightmare what did happen to Karlton that day."

Mr Thompson found that Karlton's death had been an accident and added: "What I would say before I talk to mum and dad is that clearly as the detective chief inspector noted these balloons are routinely available and purchased everywhere. I have a duty as coroner where I feel that there are actions which could see the risks of future deaths avoided to write a report addressing those risks.

"I will be writing a to Newcastle City Council, to its public health department, to see what can be done in terms of public awareness of the risks of helium balloons."

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