POLAND — What should have been a fun, end-of-school-year field trip to the beach turned tragic Tuesday when a Lewiston Middle School student drowned at Range Pond State Park.
The Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death of the 13-year-old boy. The seventh-grader was missing underwater for at least half an hour, according to a news release from Chief Deputy William Gagne.
School Superintendent Bill Webster said the district is grieving for the family that is “experiencing what no parent should experience, the loss of a child.”
“They obviously expect their child to be safe while in our care,” Webster said. “This is just a real tragic situation. We’re just overwhelmed with our grief about this tragedy.”
Gagne said police received a 911 call at 11:47 a.m., reporting a student missing.
“Preliminary investigation indicates the boy was playing in the water with friends within the buoyed swimming area when he went under,” Gagne said.
Emergency crews from the sheriff’s office, Maine Warden Service, Poland Fire-Rescue and the Auburn and Greene fire departments, both with boats, responded to the state park.
“While they were getting ready to launch the Auburn boat, the first boat, some of the firefighters went in the water,” Gagne said by phone late Tuesday afternoon. “One had a wet suit, one had a bathing suit, they just immediately started looking for the child underwater with goggles.”
They found him at 12:17 p.m., still within the buoyed swim area, took him to shore and tried to resuscitate him.
An ambulance crew tried to revive the boy on the way to the hospital, Webster said. “He was declared dead at the hospital.”
The student went underwater while playing football with friends, Webster said.
“My understanding is he did not hit his head,” Webster said. “One question I do not have a good answer for is what was the depth within that safety swimming area, because if it was 6 feet, that’s too much.”
Students playing with the boy noticed what happened right away.
“They all rushed in to get adults,” Webster said. “The adults went out there to do a search.”
The adults, including the lifeguard on duty, were not able to find the boy.
“The water was murky, so it took longer,” Webster said.
He said the 113 students on the seventh-grade outing were accompanied by 11 chaperones and one lifeguard.
Indications are the boy might not have known how to swim.
“Too many Lewiston students don’t know how to swim,” Webster said.
Lewiston Middle School Principal Jana Mates and Assistant Principal Eric Anderson met with the boy’s grieving parents at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
“We have spoken with the boy’s parents, but no words are sufficient,” Webster said.
At the middle school, Mates was not taking questions. She appeared to have been crying.
“Jana’s not in good shape,” Webster said.
Students on the field trip returned to the middle school, where they were met by a team of 20 to 25 counselors, according to Assistant Superintendent Shawn Chabot. The counselors will be at the school for students and staff Wednesday “and as long as we need them,” Webster said.
Before there are more field trips, “we’re going to reflect on our procedures, and on the investigation, when it’s completed,” Webster said. “We’ll reach out further to the family and ask how we can best support them.”
A vigil to honor “a life lost too soon” will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Lewiston Middle School, Webster tweeted Tuesday night. “Please join us to honor this life and support our students, staff, parents, and community,” Webster said.
At the direction of the Maine Warden Service, the beach area was closed during the rescue attempt, according to the state spokesman whose department oversees the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. It was reopened by midafternoon.
No other groups were scheduled to visit Tuesday, and no other schools had canceled upcoming field trips, he said.
Gagne said police were not yet releasing the teen’s name.
Parents of Lewiston students received automated calls Tuesday notifying them of the boy’s death.
Jennifer Belanger, the parent of a Lewiston Middle School eighth-grader, was in her vehicle at the school’s parking lot Tuesday waiting for her daughter to return from her field trip. Eighth-graders took a different field trip from the seventh-graders.
Belanger said she had received one of the automated voice messages.
“We heard the boy was playing football in the water, he fell back with the ball and never resurfaced,” she said. “I literally sat in the car and cried for a half-hour. It’s so shocking, so tragic. There’s been so many losses here. It’s awful.”
It is the third death of a Lewiston Middle School student in 18 months. In November 2017, Jayden Cho-Sargent, 13, died when he was struck by a vehicle as he was walking to school. In May 2017, Anie Graham, 13, died by suicide at her home.
Belanger said she feels for the parents who lost their son during the field trip.
“Getting that phone call, oh my God, you put yourself in that position,” she said. “I can’t imagine.”
About Rayan Issa
Children play on the beach at Range Pond State Park in Poland on Tuesday afternoon. A 13-year-old on a school field trip drowned at the beach Tuesday morning. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)