Jeremiah Perry, the 15-year-old Toronto boy who died on a canoe trip at Algonquin Provincial Park, was not wearing a life-jacket in the water, but he and his classmates all had to pass a swim test "two or three weeks" before the trip, says a friend and fellow student.
The students were three days into their canoe trip northeast of Toronto when Jeremiah, 15, slipped under the water on Tuesday around 8 p.m. ET while swimming in Big Trout Lake. When he didn't resurface, police were called.
Boran Balci, 17, said he, along with Jeremiah and other students "went together for a swim, because [they] were dirty," having travelled in the wilderness since Sunday.
"If the lifeguard is not there, you can't go," said Balci, adding that a lifeguard was present when the students went into the water. Balci said he was wearing a lifejacket, but Jeremiah was not.
Balci is one of 18 students who returned to C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute by bus around 1 a.m. on Thursday, appearing physically and emotionally drained, and clearly still coming to grips with Jeremiah's death. He broke down in tears during the interview with media outside the school.
Parents and grief counsellors were en route to Algonquin Provincial Park on Thursday afternoon to pick up the remaining students.
Melissa Defreitas was one of the parents waiting at C.W. Jefferys on Thursday morning — she fought off tears reflecting on what her daughter experienced.
"Just speechless right now, you know, it was very traumatic," Defreitas said. "It was hard, saying thank God your daughter is alive, but knowing someone's else's kid is dead."
Ontario Provincial Police spent the better part of 20 hours conducting a search and rescue mission as Jeremiah's fellow students waited for news.
Most of them were still at Big Trout Lake when his body was discovered late Wednesday afternoon.
The students had to be airlifted out of the park a few at a time to a designated location, where a bus was waiting to take them home.
As they boarded it Wednesday evening, they were given cellphones and asked to call their parents. For most of the teens, this was the first time they had spoken to their parents since Jeremiah had gone missing.
'It was very scary'
There was no cellphone coverage in the camping area at the park, so parents couldn't reach their children. Rita Mondle, whose daughter was on the trip, felt helpless.
"It was very scary, it was scary," she said. "I'm just glad to have her back, that's all I can say."
Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board, was at C.W. Jefferys as the families reunited. The school had counsellors on hand all day Wednesday.
"Schools are a lot more than schools, they are communities, and in that community we had all kinds of people coming in all day — parents, friends, kids at the school, community members — and we had social workers on site and a lot of people holding each other," Schwartz-Maltz told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday.
"It was a tough day. A tough, tough day."
School board to look into incident
The board will co-operate with the OPP as they investigate, Schwartz-Maltz said.
Jeremiah was among students from C.W. Jefferys and Westview Centennial Secondary School on the trip.
More than 35,000 students — from children to adults — are involved in summer-school programs across the TDSB, and the Algonquin trip is "one of many outdoor-education programs," Schwartz-Maltz told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Six adults were accompanying the 33 students on the trip — a better supervision ratio than the typical 15-1 for such excursions, Schwartz-Maltz said Wednesday. There were two teachers and four outdoor education specialists.
On Thursday, she noted that all students are required to pass a swim test before they can go on such trips, but could not provide details about where and when the tests took place, deferring to the staff member who was still with the remaining students at the park Thursday.
Schwartz-Maltz could only say that typically, swim tests include water safety, lap swimming and underwater endurance evaluations.
Balci said he, and other students on the trip were taken to Sparrow Lake near Gravenhurst, Ont., for two days, about "two or three" weeks ago to pass a swimming test. He couldn't quite remember what the test entailed — clearly tired and in shock over the death of his friend.
When asked on Metro Morning Thursday whether the TDSB will reconsider future trips, Schwartz-Maltz said when any sort of troubling incident happens during an excursion, "then we take a good, hard look at what happened."
However, Wednesday wasn't the day to start that process, she said.
"We need to talk to the kids, we need to talk to the teachers, we need to talk to the leaders," she said. "And we need to find out what we did right, whether there are any lessons to be learned and then all that will determine future trips."
Jeremiah's older brother, who also attends C.W. Jefferys, was also on the trip but joined his family shortly after learning about the death.
Mayor shares condolences
When asked about Jeremiah's death at a news conference on Thursday afternoon, Toronto Mayor John Tory said his heart goes out to the family, students and parents.
"It's just the most unspeakable thing that ever can happen, because you're not supposed to lose your children in an accident or otherwise."
He added that it's now time to wait for questions to be answered and the investigation to take place, before determining what happened.