Loudoun County officials maintain that even if the emergency response to a boy’s drowning in the River Creek neighborhood last summer not been bungled, he could not have been saved, according to a Nov. 3 update on protocol changes stemming from that drowning.
On June 4, 2020, 16-year-old Fitz Thomas, the son of Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas, drowned in the waters at the mouth of the Goose Creek at Confluence Park in the River Creek neighborhood. Loudoun dispatchers did not find out about the incident until 17 minutes after the first call. First responders took more than half an hour to respond to the scene, and 911 call recordings revealed dispatchers passing the calls back and forth between Loudoun and Montgomery County, MD, waving off help from the Loudoun side of the Potomac River, and seeming not to know Loudoun landmarks and geography.
But Fire-Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson said even if first responders had arrived promptly, it would have been too late.
“Even if the call went perfect, the circumstance surrounding the death of Mr. Thomas would not have changed. Given the time that Mr. Thomas was underwater prior to any 911 call… Mr. Thomas would not have survived according to medical professionals,” Johnson said at an update to county supervisors. Loudoun Operational Medical Director Dr. John Morgan said that in cases of drowning, permanent brain injury and death come within minutes.
The county’s report says he had been underwater for more than 25 minutes by the time friends and bystanders found him and pulled him to shore—first responders still hadn’t arrived.
The drowning and slow response have led to calls for 911 reform, and a conflict with the Thomas family which is seeking millions of dollars in compensation.
“These changes are made based on a self-evaluation. All of you guys used to work in corporate or the military, and you know in any serious evaluation, it doesn’t happen internally,” Michelle Thomas told supervisors at the meeting. “When you’re really serious about getting to the core of the issue, you call in external investigators. I ask that you call an external investigation on the incident. My son died. He deserves that.”
Thomas disputes that Fitz was dead by the time he was pulled out of the water. County Attorney Leo Rogers said the county offered to hire an independent medical investigator with the family, but was turned down and has not been allowed to see HIPAA-protected records related to the drowning as part of the investigation. Thomas said her family hired a medical examiner; the county says they were not permitted to see the results of that examination.
“This is my son, I’m going to go through every single piece of evidence to find out what happened to him,” Thomas said.
During a review of what the county fire-rescue system began calling the Perdido Bay Terrace incident, after the nearest road, the department listed 42 changes to their procedures, training and technology to improve their response times, especially along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
According to the fire-rescue department, they have completed or nearly completed 37 of those 42 items, with the rest at least half done. Those range from immediately responding to any calls on the river rather than waiting on Maryland, to developing an interactive atlas of the Potomac River for 911 dispatchers and first responders, to increasing 911 call center staffing and adding 240 missing commonplace names to the county’s Computer Aided Dispatch system.