Virginia

Loudoun County Presents Findings After Delayed Response to Teen's Drowning

"It doesn't take away the sting of death," the victim's mother said

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There were emotional moments during a Loudoun County, Virginia, board meeting Tuesday night as a grieving mother confronted elected leaders about the delayed response to her teenage son's drowning.

More than 30 minutes went by before rescue crews came to the scene where 16-year-old Fitz Thomas drowned while crossing Goose Creek the evening of June 4.

Three months later, the grief remains raw for Michelle Thomas, Fitz Thomas' mother.

"Fitz didn’t have to die. Loudoun County could have saved him. All you had to do was care a little bit more. All you had to do is come with some urgency like it was your child," Michelle Thomas told the board. Thomas is a pastor and president of the Loudoun County NAACP.

Thomas' friends cried and begged for help and adults screamed during repeated calls to 911.

"Please get down here! River Creek Goose Creek at Confluence Park. They just pulled a kid out of the water. He’s drowned," a woman tells the dispatcher.

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"Ok. What's the address there?"

"It’s River Creek Community … Come on. Can you please? … Loudoun County. Leesburg, Virginia. How are you not getting this?" the woman says.

She later makes another call with an urgent warning.

"It’s been over 30 minutes. He’s going to die. I’m just telling you guys."

Although the calls went to both Loudoun and Montgomery counties, and Thomas was in Virginia waters, only Montgomery County Fire and Rescue was dispatched because it has jurisdiction over the Potomac River.

Even when Loudoun County was alerted, dispatchers bounced the calls back to Maryland before finally sending rescue crews.

Loudoun County Fire Chief Keith Johnson presented his department’s review of the tragedy Tuesday night, and pointed out many problems that led to the delayed response.

"While there is no question the Potomac River is legally owned by the state of Maryland, strict jurisdictional boundaries does not provide the fastest and most efficient response to 911 calls," Johnson said.

Loudoun and Montgomery counties have changed their policies and officials say rescue crews from both jurisdictions will now respond to all calls on or near the Potomac River. Other recommended changes include:

  • Upgrades to the 911 system to better locate cell phone calls
  • Better mapping of points of interest along the river
  • Expanding 911 operator training

"The truth helps heal and them telling the truth to the extent they did is helpful," Michelle Thomas said. "It doesn't take away the sting of death."

The teenage son of a prominent pastor was laid to rest on Saturday. Michelle Thomas has been a driving force behind the preservation of a cemetery for enslaved African Americans in Loudoun County. News4’s Julie Carey reports her family buried her son alongside those ancestors.
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