Two fourth form students of the Escuela Secondaria Mexico school of San Roman, Corozal, who drowned in the Macal River in San Ignacio while swimming with their classmates on Friday near the low bridge, were buried in their respective home villages on Sunday.
Anahi Zepeda, 15, who is a resident of San Joaquin, Corozal, was buried in that village’s cemetery, and Edgar Puck, 16, a resident of Patchakan, was buried in the Patchakan Village Cemetery.
Zepeda was an honor roll student, while Puck was the designated valedictorian and was to have presented the valedictory speech at the upcoming school graduation.
The tragedy occurred at about 4:00 Friday evening near the low bridge in San Ignacio. The fourth form class had been on a school tour of the Che Chem Ha Cave System in the Cayo District, and had stopped at the swimming area near the bridge, to wash themselves off, when Zepeda and Puck were swept away by strong currents that came down the river.
Puck was found shortly after. He was taken to the San Ignacio Hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. Zepeda was found about an hour later and she was also taken to the San Ignacio Hospital where she was also declared dead on arrival.
In an interview on 7News Belize, a clothing vendor who was conducting business near the river at the time of the incident that Friday evening, reported that every afternoon at about 4:00 p.m., there is a surge of water that rolls down the river from the Vaca dam. She said she saw when the students were swept off their feet by the strong current, into depths where they could not touch the ground and they drowned.
She reported that the students were wading in water which was ankle-deep and then the water suddenly got higher, and then it swept them away.
Carlos Castillo, principal of the high school, said that the students got permission forms signed to go on the tour, but no consent form to swim was signed. The stopover at the swimming area was reportedly not a part of the agenda, and neither was swimming, for which parental consent was not requested on the letter to parents.
The Ministry of Education has launched an investigation into the double tragedy.
Castillo told reporters that the investigation has just begun and that action will be taken against the teachers who were in charge of the tour if they are found to be at fault. It was an educational trip; they went to look at the caves in the Cayo district, and they were scheduled to return on the same day, to reach home at about 7:00 that evening, he explained.
Jahmore Martinez, Corozal District Education Manager and lead investigator for the Ministry of Education, said that they continue to mourn. As a school community they ask the nation to keep the students in their prayers, and to pray for the families of the young persons.
The school and the families of the deceased students are grieving and the school will put out a statement at the conclusion of the investigation.
In an interview on 7News, BECOL’s vice president of operations, Stephen Usher, confirmed that when the Vaca dam begins operation in the morning, it releases water at about 10:00 a.m., which reaches San Ignacio around 4:00 p.m. in the evening. This, he said, is a normal part of power generation and he indicated that it is not a huge amount of water.
Depending on how much power is generated, the water level in the river can increase from eight to ten inches, up to two feet. He said the actual change in the river level varies depending on whether the water is passing through a wide or a narrow channel. He added that the maximum amount of water they release would not cause a significant rise in the river.