Their heads were bowed in wordless grief and, as the flight from Nice to Heathrow took off, they silently sobbed.
Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse had endured the unthinkable: their bright, fearless, funny daughter — their beloved 15-year-old Natasha — had died after suffering a catastrophic allergic reaction to a Pret a Manger baguette on the flight out.
Now, she lay in a coffin in the hold beneath them, and her parents’ abject anguish consumed them.
In the row behind them, fellow passenger Sarah, Duchess of York, returning from a business trip, watched with growing concern. ‘I could see they weren’t just grieving: it was a different scale of misery,’ she says today. ‘They were in tremendous pain. It was haunting. I contemplated: should I leave them alone, or could I do something?’
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse (pictured), 15, died three years ago after suffering a reaction and going into shock on a flight when she unwittingly ate sesame seeds to which she was allergic
Sarah, Duchess of York, with Natasha’s parents, Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse. The Duchess has become a friend and supporter of the bereaved couple. She was sitting in the row behind them as they flew from Nice to Heathrow with their daughter’s coffin in the hold
‘At that point,’ remembers Tanya, ‘a hand came through the space between the seats and took mine. We were in a terrible place, just crying silently, in the pit of despair. I had my head down. I just wanted to hide, to disappear, because I didn’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable. Then the hand grasped mine.’
She smiles at the Duchess and recalls: ‘You were leaning forward and, at that point, I didn’t realise who you were. I just saw your lovely red hair. And you said: “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help you?” And straightaway, I recognised you. You were so kind.’
Since that bleak day in July 2016, the Duchess has become friends with Tanya and Nadim. ‘Best friends — they are honorary family,’ Sarah, who is here to support the couple in their first full-length interview, tells me exclusively this week.
She says she has a photo of Natasha which she talks to daily. ‘I say: “Yep, I’m going to send a little note to your mum and dad today.” ’ And she does, sometimes including little gifts to cheer them.
The Duchess attended Natasha’s funeral and Nadim and Tanya went to the wedding of Princess Eugenie, Sarah’s daughter, last October.
Speaking today about the flight, Tanya smiles at the Duchess and recalls: ‘You were leaning forward and, at that point, I didn’t realise who you were. I just saw your lovely red hair. And you said: “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help you?” And straightaway, I recognised you. You were so kind’
Today, as she does every day, Tanya wears a memento of their first meeting: a gold and diamond bracelet Sarah took from her wrist and gave her on the plane. ‘You can take my strength from this,’ Sarah told Tanya through her own tears.
‘And I’ve worn it ever since. Even in the shower,’ smiles Tanya.
Today, the three of them meet me to share a triumph. This week, Natasha’s Law came into force, making it a legal requirement for food retailers to list all ingredients on all pre-packed foods such as sandwiches and salads.
Had such a law been in place on the day three years ago when Natasha — bursting with excitement about a holiday in France she was about to enjoy with her best friend — ate an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette bought at Heathrow Airport, she would still be alive. It is as simple as that.
The Duchess attended Natasha’s funeral and Nadim and Tanya went to the wedding of Princess Eugenie, Sarah’s daughter, last October
Natasha, who was fatally allergic to sesame seeds, was assiduous about reading food ingredient labels. But there was none on the baguette she bought at the airport. The omission by the UK-based sandwich retailer — which has around 600 stores worldwide and last year had sales of more than £1 billion — caused her death.
Because it prepares food in its High Street premises, Pret used a loophole in the law designed to help small retailers, which exempted it from itemising its ingredients on food packets.
‘But it is leading the way in reforms now,’ says Nadim.
Thanks to relentless campaigning by Natasha’s parents — supported by the Duchess of York — the Government has recognised the anomaly.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove this week announced a major tightening of food labelling rules that will come into effect in 2021.
Nadim and Tanya this week also launched the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation (NARF) in memory of their daughter. Its ambitious mission is to prevent and cure food allergies, which account for 4,500 UK hospital admissions annually, while also focusing on law, education, awareness and research.
They hailed the change in the labelling law as a ‘fitting legacy’ to Natasha that would spare other families from suffering their ‘enduring agony’.
‘Our daughter’s story resonated with the Government,’ says Nadim. ‘We met Michael Gove and he promised to do something. He has honoured that and we are very grateful. This huge change in legislation has been pushed through in record time.
‘Hundreds of millions of packets of food will be affected by it and they will have to be scientifically labelled and all 14 of the most commonly recognised allergens listed.’
When we meet at a London hotel, the Duchess is ‘bursting with pride’ at her friends’ success with Natasha’s Law. As the mum of two daughters, she is, she says, ‘eternally grateful’ for their good health and can only imagine the grief that her friends are enduring.
She is the patron of NARF and takes her role seriously, attending meetings with scientists whose research into immunotherapy is helping to treat and reduce allergic symptoms.
There are huge hugs when Sarah, who has Tigger-ish energy, bounds into the room in an emerald-green dress teamed with black pumps.
Tanya remembers their first conversation on the London-bound plane: ‘We were contemplating that awful journey with Natasha’s body in the hold and the Duchess gave us the opportunity to talk about our daughter.’
‘You were interested,’ Tanya says to Sarah now. ‘And I wanted to tell you what had happened. You asked us all the right questions about Natasha: “What did she enjoy? What did she like?” ’
A picture emerged of a teenager on the brink of a life full of promise, who was passionate about social justice — she hoped to be a human rights lawyer — sporty, energetic and fun.
‘She wanted to learn to fly,’ recalls her father. ‘She’d already read the pilots’ handbook I’d given her and said: “Daddy, instead of a party, do you think I could have one or two flying lessons for my 16th birthday?” She was a gutsy girl. She’d zoom around London with me on the back of my moped.’
Sarah says that in honour of Natasha, she is now starting flying lessons again. She recalls the day of Natasha’s funeral, November 5, 2016. She says: ‘I’m quite shy and I thought: “Should I go?” ’
‘But we’d invited you!’ says Tanya.
‘I remember I’d arrived early, and I thought I could hide behind a bush or quietly go to the back so I wouldn’t be in the way,’ Sarah tells me. ‘But they were so embracing and kind.
‘And it was the most incredible service, and the bit that got me was the enormous love and friendship that shone from everyone.’
Tanya and Nadim are heroically dignified in their grief. They are the sort of people who put others at ease: quietly spoken, articulate, kind and gracious in their thanks when you offer condolences.
They run a successful toy firm — Wow Toys — and live in Fulham, West London, with their son Alex, 15. Theirs was a blessed life until the tragedy that all but broke them. They recall how they had barely gone out of the house to socialise since Natasha’s death when the invitation for Princess Eugenie’s wedding to Jack Brooksbank arrived last year.
‘We were on the steps outside St George’s Chapel with Eugenie’s friends and bridesmaids. It was an amazing experience,’ says Nadim. The Duchess reveals her late father, Major Ronald Ferguson, lost his brother John, when he was a child, to a food allergy in the Thirties.
‘Everyone used to say he died after eating a bad crab sandwich,’ she says. ‘In those days, nothing was known about allergies, but I’m sure that’s what it was. And I never eat shellfish because of Uncle John’s death.’
Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, with their son Alex, outside West London Coroners Court, following the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Natasha, from Fulham, west London. She died after she fell ill on a flight from London to Nice after eating a Pret A Manger sandwich at Heathrow Airport
Natasha, Tashie to friends and family, was severely allergic to seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs and bananas. She had lived with her condition since she was three months old and she and her parents were ultra-vigilant. They knew they had to be.
The day when she fell fatally ill had started with such hope and promise. She and her best friend Bethany were going with Nadim on a four-day trip to Nice, on the French Riviera, to stay in a flat Nadim’s parents own. Tanya, meanwhile, was staying at home with Alex, then 13, who had invited a friend to visit.
‘We’d been going on holiday to Nice for years. It was a home-from-home and we’d go exploring, to the beaches at Monaco and kayaking in the Ardeche,’ recalls Nadim. ‘This time, Bethany was coming.’
‘And Tashie had it all planned,’ continues Tanya. ‘She knew exactly where they’d be going and everything was attached to a happy childhood memory.’
The flight was an early-morning one and Tanya had driven her husband and the girls to Heathrow. ‘I hugged Tashie, then Nadim and Bethany, and said: “Have an amazing time.” It was such a brief goodbye and they were so excited . . .’ Her voice trails off.
With half an hour to spare before their flight — and having skipped breakfast — the girls were hungry.
‘So we went to Pret to grab something to eat,’ recalls Nadim. ‘Natasha and I looked at a sandwich and the label said it contained artichokes, olives and peppers. She loved all those foods — and all of them were fine for her to eat, so we bought it.’
The sandwich outlet should, however, have displayed signs warning of potential allergens and guiding customers to staff members if they needed advice. Nadim and Tanya learned subsequently that these signs had been removed during a shop refit and — with catastrophic consequences for Natasha — had never been replaced.
Therefore, they had no idea that the bread in the baguette had been baked with sesame seeds mixed into the dough, ‘and, as teenagers do, the girls wolfed down their food before we got to the boarding gate’, says Nadim.
The first signs that all was not well began when Natasha’s throat started to itch — a familiar problem for allergy sufferers — and she took some Piriton, which she always carried with her Epipens (automatic injection devices), to relieve the symptoms.
‘We boarded the plane and the girls were listening to music, sharing one set of headphones, and giggling,’ says Nadim. It was to be his last happy image of his daughter. ‘Then Tashie said she was feeling worse. She showed me her midriff and it was covered in raised red welts, like whip marks. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and it was a real shock.
‘She said she wanted her Epipen and for the first time ever, she asked if I should give her an injection. I knew exactly what to do. As I got the pen out, Natasha was hunched over, gasping for breath.
‘But I thought the Epipen would do it, that it would turn it round. I jabbed it into her thigh and checked it had worked properly.’
Such pens contain epinephrine, which opens the airways in the lungs and is used to treat anaphylaxis. But it quickly became clear that Natasha was not responding. ‘She was still saying: “I can’t breathe, Daddy.”
‘I grabbed her second Epipen and followed the same routine, but she was still saying: “This isn’t working, Daddy. I can’t breathe. Help!” and there was real terror in her face. She was slumped forward. I held her shoulders and she was losing consciousness.
‘I grabbed the steward and said: “Quickly, quickly, get the oxygen mask.” I thought if we could get air into her lungs, then she would not become unconscious. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I was trying to be calm. I said: “Call for a doctor,” and this very young man, who’d only graduated the day before, came forward.’
The ensuing attempts to revive Natasha were heroic, but sadly unsuccessful. ‘The doctor injected her with adrenalin from the plane’s medical bag, but she was limp and her face was swelling up. He did mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions, and she still had a pulse, but it was very weak.
‘I was in total disbelief. In the space of 20 minutes, my daughter was dying of multiple cardiac arrests. When the plane landed, the paramedics were waiting.
‘They immediately came on board and I told them in French what had happened.
‘By then, Tashie was completely unconscious and there was a rush to find a defibrillator. They kept doing compressions, so vigorously that all her ribs were broken. I was talking constantly to her: “Come on, fight, Tashie, fight,” and Bethany was in her seat praying aloud for her friend to live.’
Natasha was rushed to hospital in Nice and, as she was stretchered off, Nadim rang Tanya: ‘You need to come quickly. Something really bad has happened to Natasha,’ he said.
At home in London, Tanya took in the news with ‘utter disbelief.’ Dispatching Alex to her mum’s, she booked the only flight available to Nice that day, from Stansted.
At the hospital, Nadim clung to a sliver of hope. ‘I was called into a little white room where a doctor told me that Natasha had suffered catastrophic organ failure.
‘I said: “What does that mean?” and he said she had less than a 5 per cent chance of living. I just broke down. You go into this strange, surreal mode where everything seems weirdly muted. It’s like a coma of the mind.
‘By then, Natasha looked disfigured. She felt cold. Bethany was with her playing Justin Bieber to her, because Tashie loved him. I just felt despair.’ Natasha was moved to a private room and Nadim placed his phone by her ear so that Tanya, waiting for her now-delayed flight, could say her last goodbye. ‘And I said: “Tashie, I love you so much darling and I will be with you really soon.” ’
Tanya did not make it in time to see her daughter before she died.
‘When she was gone, all I could do was sob. I cut locks of her hair to keep and then they took her to the mortuary,’ says Nadim.
The next day, Tanya and Nadim made their bleak journey to the mortuary. ‘I had to see her, but her soul had gone. I didn’t feel she was there,’ says Tanya.
And now the summers of Nice are soured by sorrow. ‘I cannot find any joy in the heat or the smells of the pine and eucalyptus any more. Everything takes me back to death,’ says Nadim. Today, they are sustained by their Christian faith, by their campaigning and by the foundation that will strive to help others in Natasha’s name. They are valiant, kind, wonderful people and my heart breaks for them.
At home, they are still picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Natasha’s holiday bag remains unpacked, her school uniform still hangs in her wardrobe, her beloved cockapoo Buddy still waits fruitlessly for her return.
‘And we still take it in turns to sleep in Tashie’s bed,’ says Tanya, her face stained with tears.
In their sitting room, Natasha’s trainers remain by the mirror, as if just abandoned by her. Sometimes, Nadim puts his shoes on either side of them in a symbolic protective gesture.
‘She’d be really proud of us all,’ says Tanya, looking at her husband. ‘And she knows how much you’re suffering because though you tried everything, you couldn’t save her.’
To support the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, go to narf.org.uk/donate