On Aug. 16, the day the late Fitz Thomas would have been 17 years old, the rising Loudoun County senior should have been balancing working at a local grocery store with swimming and enjoying the sounds of late Jamaican musician Garnett Silk, his family said.
Instead, Thomas’s loved ones were mourning his passing, and state lawmakers were urging Virginia’s public safety secretary to review the circumstances surrounding the June 4 drowning death.
During the incident, initial 911 calls were routed to Maryland first responders, who couldn’t pinpoint the location of the accident. After numerous communication breakdowns, local first responders did not arrive until more than 30 minutes after the initial call.
Michelle Thomas, Fitz’s mother and the NAACP Loudoun Branch president, is calling for public safety changes following her son’s drowning at Confluence Park in the River Creek community just outside Leesburg.
“Unless we fix this public safety issue, all of us are at risk, and not just people swimming in the water,” Thomas said.
She added, “I am determined not to have Fitzy’s life in vain, and the only way that I can do that is to work hard to make these changes that cost him his life. That’s the best thing I can give the world or this county.”
Within weeks of Fitz’s death, state lawmakers sent a letter to Brian Moran, secretary of Virginia’s public safety department, requesting the department investigate the teenager’s death. State Sens. John Bell (D-13th) and Jennifer Boysko (D-33rd) and Del. David Reid (D-32nd), all representatives of parts of Loudoun, signed the June 18 letter.
“We are hoping that this investigation will lead us to correct the communication errors and change any procedures that may have led to this tragic event,” the lawmakers said in the joint letter.
Michelle Thomas on Aug. 15 led a Leesburg-Ashburn area march with more than 100 friends and family members and classmates of her son.
Marchers traveled from Lansdowne Village Green to the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, where Fitz Thomas is buried. Michelle Thomas spent a moment to grieve at his memorial before leading the group back for a rally.
As part of “the Fitz-It List,” Michelle Thomas suggested posting warning signs around the Confluence Park area and developing a map of the location. She’s also supporting full funding for updates to Loudoun’s 911 Command Center & Systems, providing CPR training for Loudoun County Public Schools athletes, requiring bias training and retraining dispatchers and call takers. More than 500 people have signed an online petition regarding the initiative, and 900 people are following on Facebook.
“We can’t have this happen,” said Phillip Thompson, past NAACP Loudoun Branch president.
On June 4 at 6:15 p.m., units from Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue were dispatched to the area where they found Fitz Thomas unresponsive, according to local emergency services. Fitz Thomas was then transported to Inova Lansdowne Pediatric ER, where he was pronounced dead.
Friends and volunteers in the area pulled Thomas out of the water after he and other teenagers were swimming in the confluence of Goose Creek and the Potomac River.
Loudoun units responded more than 30 minutes after the first 911 call. This followed several exchanges with Montgomery County emergency services in Maryland, where the calls were initially routed. Montgomery County officials said they did not need Loudoun to assist with the call, despite the Maryland responders not being able to pinpoint the location of the incident.
Calls from the Potomac River fall within the jurisdiction of Montgomery County because the Potomac is part of Maryland, but calls within the Virginia shoreline or waterways leading to the Potomac River in that area are routed to Loudoun.
Shortly after the drowning, Loudoun EMS officials made a policy shift so 911 operators are now to dispatch Loudoun units to any incident on adjoining waterways, regardless of jurisdictional responsibility.
Laura Rinehart, public information officer for Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue System, said the department has been working to prevent a similar case from occurring again. So far, the policy change has helped with a number of water rescues during heavy rainfalls, she said.
“Fitz died, and he’s saving lives even now,” Michelle Thomas said. “That’s the silver lining. Neither his life or his death is in vain — somebody is living.”
A spokesman from Sen. Bell’s office said they have not received a response yet from Moran’s office. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into the drowning is ongoing.
Nearly $15,000 has been raised for the Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas Loudoun Freedom Center Scholarship. The scholarship fund will award $2,500 scholarships to graduating seniors, beginning with Fitz’s class of 2021. All funds raised will go directly to the Loudoun Freedom Center for awardee selection and distribution.
Anyone interested in mailing in donations can make checks out to the Loudoun Freedom Center with “Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas Scholarship Fund” in the memo line. They can be mailed to: Loudoun Freedom Center ATTN: scholarship fund to 19309 Winmeade Drive #307 Lansdowne, Virginia 20176.