TIGER SANDY BAY, Sibun River, Mon. Feb. 15, 2016–Within hours, tragedy struck a group of high school students from North Cobb High School in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, who were on winter break and arrived in Belize on Saturday, February 14, for a field trip, when one of the students drowned in the Sibun River at Tiger Sandy Bay, located off the George Price Highway at about Mile 31.
The thirty-two students and their nine chaperones arrived in Belize around midday at the Philip Goldson International Airport, where they were met by personnel from Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Following their brief orientation, the students split up into groups and some of them went swimming, while others decided on hiking.
Around 4:00 p.m., the chaperones did a head count before heading back to the resort, and it was then that they discovered that a freshman student and music scholar, Tomari Aliijah Jackson, 14, a ninth grader, was missing.
Personnel from the Belize Police Department, the Belize Coast Guard and the United States Embassy began combing the area for the missing student.
On Sunday morning, shortly after 2:00 a.m., and after an extensive search in the Sibun River, Jackson’s body was fished out of the river. His body was discovered by two local divers in about 25 feet of water.
This was Jackson’s first trip to Belize. He would have celebrated his 15th birthday today, Monday.
Police reported today, Monday, that Jackson’s body was taken to the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital’s morgue, where it awaits a post-mortem to confirm the cause of death. Meanwhile, police say they are continuing their investigation.
“The students were having a great time. They had just arrived that day (Saturday), when the accident occurred,” Dr. Angela Huff, Chief of Staff, Cobb County School District, told Channel 11 Live, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia.
Monkey Bay managing director Matthew Miller told one local media that Jackson’s death “is still a mystery to all the adults who were supervising the group. What could have happened? We just don’t know!”
Miller said that this is the first incident where someone has lost his or her life in the course of a program.
After arriving at Monkey Bay and following their orientation, they went swimming in the river, Miller said.
“The area is a popular canoe-take location; local people go there to fish; it’s a known bathing spot,” Miller explained.
Miller described the area as a shallow area and said that the 9 chaperones were stationed at the right places and on the sandbar, and among the chaperones were two licensed tour guides.
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has been used for about two decades by various missions from the United States, he said.
While there has been no official explanation from the chaperones about how it was that Jackson went down under the water and no one noticed until the group was ready to leave, Miller said that his death has been felt hard by the leaders, who were entrusted with their safety by the parents of the students.
Jackson was the only son of a single mother.
Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale told the station, “On behalf of our entire school district, I offer my sincere condolences to the Tomari family. We are deeply saddened by the loss of this talented North Cobb High School scholar and musician. Our immediate priority at this time is caring for and supporting his family and all the students, families, and school staff impacted by this tragic event.
School district officials have been in contact with families of students on the trip and local authorities in Belize. The group decided that in the circumstances, the field trip had to be cut short, and working in collaboration with the United States Embassy, travel arrangements were quickly concluded and the rest of the students and their chaperones returned to Atlanta today, Monday.