Boran Balci was swimming at Big Trout Lake in Algonquin Park with a group of his high school classmates from C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate Institute in Toronto when he felt something in the water pulling him down.
“I was swimming and something pulled me down. Something pulled my left leg and after my right leg,” the 17-year-old said on Thursday. “I was looking around and there was no Jeremiah. Where is Jeremiah?”
School officials confirmed on Wednesday that 15-year-old Jeremiah Perry, a student at C.W. Jeffreys, died of an apparent drowning while on a week-long school excursion which began on Sunday.
Ontario Provincial Police said the Toronto teen was swimming in Big Trout Lake, a remote area of Algonquin Park, when he went under the water but did not resurface.
Balci said a group of students decided to go in the water to clean off after two days hiking in the park.
“We went together for a swim because we were dirty. He was running to the water and he went inside of the water,” Balci said.
“I didn’t think it was Jeremiah. It was oily skin. It was like fish. I felt hands pulling me down.”
Balci said there was a lifeguard with the group but no one was able to locate Jeremiah, who he said wasn’t wearing a lifejacket.
“If lifeguard is not there, you can’t go in the water,” he said. “I had lifejacket too. I was going up. But he was really strong. But he was pulling me.”
Balci said a rescue helicopter and a diver were brought in Tuesday evening in an attempt to locate Jeremiah but the search was called off due to the darkness. OPP found Jeremiah’s body Wednesday afternoon.
Officials said the trip ended ahead of schedule after the C.W. Jefferys student’s disappearance, and the remaining students were taken out of the campground.
The students then boarded a plane and flew to a meeting point where buses transported them back to Toronto.
More than half of the 33 students on the trip returned home to Toronto early Thursday morning with the remaining to be brought back by Friday.
“Yes, there were challenges. But 18 kids are back. The rest of the kids will come home tomorrow,” Toronto District School Board spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said.
VIDEO: Toronto teen drowns on school field trip
The circumstances surrounding Perry’s death are still under investigation. The school board said they are cooperating with police and will be speaking to staff and students in the coming days.
School officials said there are strict guidelines in place for excursions and that students had to pass a swim test before being allowed to go on the trip.
“This summer outdoor education course and program has been operating for a number of years with an excellent safety record,” TDSB Director John Malloy said in a statement on Wednesday. “We know all staff involved are committed to reviewing each and every aspect of this tragedy to assure ourselves and our communities of our safety procedures.”
Balci said students were given a swim test prior but questions remain on how it was administered.
“They brought us to Sparrow Lake. We stayed there two days. Everyone passed the swimming test,” he said. “If you don’t use lifejacket. If you know swim, you can swim. But if you don’t know, you can use a lifejacket.”
The school board said there are protocols in place to make sure students are aware of their surroundings and are comfortable with the outdoor conditions.
“Generally when we do canoe trips, conditions of the lake are different, than in a pool,” Schwartz-Maltz said. “Our expectation or what has been done, practices being there’s a lake test as well. These conditions can be different.”