A year ago today, Sam Diatta joined his family for a walk by the river in York followed by a picnic in the park.
It was a lovely summer’s family outing. Yet, just a few hours later, Sam was dead.
Described as a gentle giant, Sam died after being restrained by members of the public in the Mappin & Webb jewellery shop on Coney Street. He was 39.
A year on, his family are still coming to terms with how a happy, ordinary day turned so suddenly and strangely to tragedy.
The fact it’s a year today (Wednesday, 26 July) since his death “doesn’t seem real,” Sam’s sister Téba said.
The day had begun so well, with that family trip. “We walked along the river back into York and we had a picnic with a family friend. That seems so real,” she told YorkMix.
“It was in Homestead Park. So whenever I cycle past Homestead Park, I always think of him.
“In some ways, it seems like it was only yesterday. But in other ways, it seems like it was a long time since we last saw him and spent time with him.
“There’s an empty space at the table when we have Sunday dinner. And there was an empty space at Christmas.”
‘A lovely person’
Brother and sister were very close. “Me and Sam were only 17 months apart. So we grew up almost like twins,” said Téba.
“He was always there. He was a mischievous little child, he would always be up to little pranks. He loved his water pistols, his Super Soakers I think they were called – he’d be soaking people with them, throwing water bombs, laughing and giggling.
“We’ve got some old footage of him as a little boy on his BMX bike. And that’s really special to us, seeing him giggling and smiling on there.
“He was just a lovely person, he would very rarely get angry. He was very forgiving – placid, a gentleman.
“I couldn’t have wished for a nicer person to have as a brother.”
Sam went to St Barnabas and later Poppleton Road primary schools, and then on to to Manor C of E Secondary School.
As he grew older he had mental health struggles which “did overshadow quite a part of his adult life”.
“He was in and out of hospital throughout his adult life,” Téba said.
“It was difficult to see someone you love struggling. But we just got used to it. And it was sort of like normal. It became normal for us.”
And they shared a lot of happy times. “I used to spend time with him on the weekends, sometimes stay at his flat.
“We’d get a curry together, watch a film or watch something on Sky. He liked his documentaries.
“And now that’s gone. So there is a big gap left in our lives that he’s not there. It’s just the three of us now; before it was four.”
Téba recalled how the family learned the news. “My mum and dad were in. I was out at the gym. And there was a knock at the door from the police and they asked to come in and said there’d been an incident in town and Sam was not expected to survive.
“Shortly afterwards, they said that he’d passed away. I got back from the gym having had a conversation on the phone with my mum.
“It was just really surreal. I just felt numb with shock.”
Sam was planning a trip to Senegal to see his extended family – they have more than 20 cousins in the West African country.
“He’d been looking forward to that,” Téba said. “But all that was taken away when we lost him.”
The tragedy struck out of the blue.
“It was a very sudden way to lose somebody. One minute for him to be there at a picnic, and then he went off – and we can’t remember if he left before us – and then the next thing to be told a few hours later that he’s not going to survive. And then he’s gone.
“It was a really big shock.”
Looking back, Téba wonders if she somehow knew he had died before being told anything.
Late on the afternoon when it happened, after leaving the picnic, she travelled into York by bus to pick up her bike from a repair shop. “And I felt very tearful.
“I was crying on the bus behind my sunglasses, trying to dab my eyes and hoping that nobody could see.
“Then later that evening, it hit me – I was in tears for no reason, and I think that might have been the time that he passed away.
“It almost made my blood run cold.”
Police arrested four people in connection with Sam’s death. Earlier this month, a police spokesperson said all four were being released from the investigation and no one would be charged.
Now Sam’s family are hoping that an inquest into his death will give them more answers. Coroner Jonathan Leach opened the inquest in January, and gave as a preliminary cause of his death “hypertensive heart disease and the effects of being restrained”.
The full inquest will be held at a date to be fixed.
Téba said there is CCTV footage of the incident but the family haven’t seen it. She doesn’t want to view it either: “I don’t want to see those tragic moments,” she said.
She added: “It is saddening to think that he would have been in that position without being able to get the help he needed.”
The Diatta family album
The family are planning to mark the first anniversary of Sam’s death by visiting his grave in Poppleton.
Téba is from a loving Christian family, and they have pulled together in the wake of the tragedy. “We’ve had a lot of support from the church and from friends. Even now we’ve had people saying, give your mum an extra hug from me.
“We know people are thinking about us, which means a lot.”
And she said the wider city of York had rallied round. “We are grateful to people in York.
“We had over 200 sympathy cards, and I think over 30 bouquets of flowers. A lot of people stopped us in the street and passed on their condolences.
“So we did really feel loved and upheld by the kindness of other people.”
One year on, Téba hasn’t fully come to terms with the tragedy.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real to me. And I don’t think I’ve properly had chance to grieve.
“I have this picture in the room, a picture of him that we had at the vigil, and it says ‘In memory of Sam Diatta’.
“And sometimes I have to look at that picture just to make sure it’s real, that it’s not a dream.”
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