It was at the height of a heat wave, an oppressively hot 98 degrees on July 18, when Ja’briel O’Connor visited the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center pool with his summer camp, Families Forward.
At 4-foot-4-inches tall, O'Connor, who didn’t know how to swim, was playing in the pool’s shallow waters with some other campers when he ventured towards the deeper end that dropped to 5 feet. Unable to keep his head above water, the 7-year-old panicked, forcing himself into cardiac arrest, according to the a report by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner. Then he sank to the bottom of the pool, unnoticed.
There Ja’briel remained, face down underwater for an undetermined amount of time -- despite there being four lifeguards and four chaperones watching the 30 kids. Eventually, a counselor on the pool deck spotted the boy and shouted for another counselor in the pool to check on him.
Unresponsive, the boy was pulled from the pool and the counselors screamed for help from the lifeguards. They came and started performing CPR. He was rushed to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where he was placed on a ventilator, but doctors found no brain activity. The next day, he was taken off of life support, his organs donated to others and he passed away.
Now, nearly five months after the boy’s death, O'Connor's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and Families Forward – alleging they failed to keep Ja’briel safe.
"A fundamental principal of safety when you’ve got young children, in this case a 7-year-old boy, is you’ve gotta keep an eye on him and they didn’t do that,” said Andrew Stern, the family’s attorney. “This boy is just gone because of clear, inexcusable negligence."
According to the lawsuit, Ja’briel’s mother Aisha Watson told Families Forward counselors on two separate occasions that her son could not swim, but yet he was allowed to enter the pool and venture into the deep end without any type of flotation device or proper supervision.
A witness also told police, while there were four lifeguards on duty at the time of the drowning, none were at their post, the suit states. The lifeguards were allegedly talking with each other and horsing around – throwing one another in the pool – while Ja’briel was in distress.
The family says the lifeguards should have been properly trained and surveying the pool.
"It’s an absolutely terrifying, horrible way to die," Stern said. "It’s been devastating for this family and it’s been particularly painful this time of year when most people, understandably, are enjoying the holidays. This happened only a matter of months ago."
A spokesperson for Families Forward offered no comment on the lawsuit only saying the organization was devastated by what happened. The organization, which also does business as Traveler’s Aid Society, provides help to homeless families in the city. They operate the city’s largest private run shelter, according to its website, and have 75 transitional housing units in West Philadelphia.
Watson and her two other children had been and continue to live in one of the organization’s homes.
Jennifer Crandall, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office, also offered no comment citing the pending litigation.
Following Ja’briel’s death, Mayor Nutter visited the family and called the boy’s death a "tragedy."
"The City will continue to provide support services to Ja’briel's family, the camp staff, City employees and community members affected by this tragedy," he said in a statement at the time.
The lawsuit is seeking exemplary damages for the alleged carelessness and negligence that led to O'Connor's death. Stern said the family attempted to resolve the case without filing a lawsuit, but that officials from both the city and the non-profit were not interested in a settlement.
"What we’re hoping to do is to heighten an awareness so that this doesn’t happen to somebody else. We’re hoping that by the filing of this lawsuit and by providing compensation to this family, that this type of tragedy won’t happen to anybody else," Stern said.