Pool tragedy not a drowning

The headlines and broadcasts pronounced the boy’s death last week as yet another summer drowning: “Boy, 13, drowns in Bradford backyard pool,” the Star reported.

A follow-up story, focusing on the need to beef up pool safety regulations, told readers that 10 people had drowned in Ontario in as many days. “A 13-year-old Bradford boy in a backyard pool Tuesday was the fourth teen to drown recently,” the article stated.

A day later, a Star editorial entitled “Drownings are all preventable” weighed in on the important issue of water safety, citing the fact that over the past week several drownings had occurred including, “a 13-year-old Bradford boy in his backyard pool.”

But the death of Thomas Wright, 13, who was pulled unconscious from his family’s pool on July 6 is not to be counted as one more drowning statistic. Nor should this terrible incident be held up as an example of the need for increased vigilance by parents to prevent water tragedy.

Though no less tragic, what actually happened to Thomas, a top student and avid athlete who had just completed Grade 7 at Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School, remains a mystery.

With the investigation continuing, the coroner has yet to pronounce on the cause of Thomas’s death. As initial police reports of this death indicated, the boy had been swimming in the family pool, with his parents watching from the deck, when he was pulled out in distress, “without vital signs.” CPR was performed on the unconscious boy and paramedics were called. He was taken to hospital where he “succumbed to his injuries and died.”

Though the reports from the South Simcoe Police Service never actually stated that the then-unidentified boy had drowned, widespread media reports throughout the Greater Toronto area labelled the death a drowning and held it up as an example of the perils of summer and the need to pay heed to water safety. A local TV station sent a helicopter flying over the town of Bradford to shoot footage of backyard swimming pools to illustrate their reports about this tragedy.

Given the phrasing in the police reports — “pulled out in distress,” and “without vital signs” — I think that citing this as a drowning was an understandable inference. Still, this is a reminder to all of us in the media that the facts can never be taken for granted no matter how straightforward they might seem.

The erroneous conclusion that Thomas had drowned only added to this family’s grief and it matters greatly to them that the record is corrected.

The boy’s grandfather, Dennis Jackson, contacted me this week to voice his concerns about what the family regarded as “totally inaccurate” news reports and “false insinuations” of the Star’s July 8 lead editorial calling for more parental vigilance regarding water safety.

Jackson said the family interpreted what was intended as a public service editorial that made a valid point about the need for all parents to “redouble their efforts to prevent tragedy,” as implying that the boy’s parents had been irresponsible in his death. I explained to Jackson that this was certainly not the intention of the editorial.

Given that there had been no follow-up reporting on the poolside tragedy, the Star had not even learned that this death was not a drowning until Jackson brought these facts my way.

The grieving grandfather told me that Thomas, whose father is a Toronto firefighter, was a strong swimmer who held a Bronze Star and was working on his Bronze Medallion. His parents were vigilant and made sure all three of their boys learned to swim at an early age. They were poolside when Thomas was in the water and surfaced in distress.

“They did as much as any parents could do,” Jackson said.

Though Wright’s parents, Sonny and Karen, did not want to talk with me, they explained some of this in a letter published in the Bradford Times.

“Thomas did not drown as reported,” they stated. “He experienced an unknown medical condition while in his family pool. He did not take in any water, and results of the autopsy came back inconclusive.

“Thomas had no underlying medical conditions, so his sudden passing has left our family with many questions; as yet we haven’t been offered many answers.”

The Wrights thanked emergency services and medical personal for coming to their aid and expressed their appreciation to local residents for their outpouring of support in Thomas’s death. Hundreds of people attended his funeral last week.

“Our son’s life and his passing have sparked a flood of support from family, friends and members of this community which has completely overwhelmed us,” they wrote.”

Among those local responses was an apology printed in the Bradford Topic, a weekly paper owned by Torstar’s Metroland Media Group Ltd. “The Topic apologizes for previously incorrectly reporting the boy drowned,” editor Jay Gutteridge wrote.

And here too, the Toronto Star apologizes to the Wright family for the misunderstanding in this sad summer tragedy.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on July 16, 2010.

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