July 24 will mark 14 years since the near-drowning accident of our son, Adam. During a summer camp activity, he was trapped under-water for 25 minutes and this blog has chronicled his life, recovery and our journey as a family. One monumental occasion was an apology, an act of forgiveness and closure to many years of anger and pain. Apology and forgiveness was a 10 year process and will be described in my next post on July 24, 2012.
Many readers don’t really know the story which ensued from the events of July 24, 1998. One of the best articles was in the Valley Advocate; devoid of sensationalism but one which captured fact and emotion. It lays the essential groundwork which culminated many years later (2008) in apology, forgiveness and closure. All are painful but ecstatic possibilities in the human dimension. And so the article” ”Who’s Afraid of Adam Dzialo?”
The Advocate, September 6, 2001
Valley Advocate (Easthampton, MA)
September 6, 2001
This boy nearly lost his life at Greenfield Community College’s summer camp. Now the state college is fighting him in court.
Who’s Afraid of Adam Dzialo?
Adam Dzialo’s mother says her son wants to return to the river. He wants to go back over the railroad tracks and down the steep embankment to the bend where the smooth current suddenly roils, where the cold dark water turns white and wild, where Dzialo, as a wiry, athletic, brave boy of 12 nearly died in a botched and ill-conceived whitewater drill at a Greenfield Community College summer adventure camp three years ago.
Sharon Dzialo cannot know with complete certainty what Adam wants, but these past three years she’s learned to intimate her son’s needs, to understand his coarse utterances, various facial expressions and body language. Since the accident at GCC’s Team Adventure camp, Adam Dzialo cannot speak. He can no longer walk, or even sit, without support.
Because on that day on the Deerfield River during an exercise on whitewater safety, the sinewy 80-pound, five-foot-two-inch tall boy momentarily lost his courage. As the current surged, Adam struggled frantically to find his footing. His high-top sneaker got lodged under a boulder. The adult lifejacket issued by the GCC camp was useless: It bobbed about on the surface as Adam’s body was pinned under by the force of the current. After 20 to 30 minutes of oxygen deprivation Adam suffered severe brain damage.
Adam’s parents, Phil and Sharon Dzialo, went bankrupt covering their son’s medical bills, which top $300,000. But the camp’s sponsor, Greenfield Community College, has emerged from the tragedy relatively untouched. The college denies responsibility for the accident, even though the school’s accrediting agency had warned — one month before the accident — that the Team Adventure camp was inadequately staffed. Even though the camp was not licensed, in violation of state law. Even though the counselors broke the camp’s own supervision requirements, leaving one counselor in charge of 12 boys on the river when there should have been two.
This summer the Dzialo family filed a civil rights suit in state court to recoup their mounting financial losses. The Dzialos say their ultimate goal is to get the community college to take responsibility for the devastating accident that happened on its watch, and to engage GCC in Adam’s journey to what the family hopes will be a full recovery. The Dzialos say they want to talk, to begin anew a dialogue about the accident.
But GCC doesn’t trust the Dzialos. When the family speaks, sometimes in e-mails sent to the state college’s board of trustees, or during the public comment period at GCC meetings, occasionally through the local press, what college officials hear is the voice of their lawyer warning that anything they say can be used against them in trial.
And so, as Adam’s family labors to teach their 15-year-old son to communicate again, officials at the local community college remain largely mute. Some of the officials are former friends of the Dzialos, or acquaintances. Adam played baseball and hockey with a few of their sons. Sharon Dzialo, a guidance counselor for 20 years at Franklin County Technical High School, has worked with some of their children. The Dzialos feel betrayed.
“The most bizarre moment for me, I decided, was in January when I decided I would finally address the board of trustees,” Sharon Dzialo says from her living room as Adam sits nearby, watching the Disney Channel’s teeny bopper action series “Jett Jackson” on TV.
Sharon was looking for the meeting room, but got lost. Board President Becky Caplice, whose son used to be a close friend of Adam’s and a teammate, pulled up and offered Sharon a ride. They chatted on the way to the meeting. Sharon says: “So we walked in together and she went up to her seat at the trustees’ table and I sat down in the audience and she said, ‘Now we’re going to hear from Sharon Dzialo.’ I made my statement. I was very emotional. I sat down, and there was no response. Silence.”
Adam Dzialo’s whitewater accident was the result not of one dramatic act of nature — a murderous current or some hidden vortex — but, rather, of the culmination of a series of mishaps, glitches and incompetent acts: from a state license the college’s Team Adventure camp never obtained to the pair of waterlogged, laced-up high-top sneakers Adam wore in the river.
Here’s what happened during Adam’s last adventure at summer camp. Just after lunchtime on July 24, 1998, Adam Dzialo and eleven other Team Adventure campers were taken to the Deerfield River by their two camp counselors to conduct a whitewater river rescue exercise. The whitewater rescue was to be the final challenge on the final day of the week-long outdoor skills camp.
“The brochure identified kayaking and boating as possible activities,” Phil Dzialo says. “But there was nothing, absolutely nothing in it to suggest that campers would be free-floating down whitewater with nothing but life vests.”
At the edge of the Deerfield River, the counselor split the boys into two groups, “rescuers and rescuees.” Each camper was told to sit in the water in his lifejacket and, from that position, wade out to the middle of the river. The rescuee was supposed to float on his back about 200 yards downriver, where the rescuers were stationed with rope bags used for river rescues. The rescuers were to throw the bags to the boys floating downstream and pull them to safety.
While the boys were receiving their rudimentary instructions on the riverbank, the Deerfield river was quietly rising. Camp counselors had checked the water levels at 9 a.m., according to a GCC report obtained by Phil Dzialo. However, the local hydropower company had released a surge of water from the dam upstream at 10 a.m., causing the river to swell.
The boys were getting ready for the drill just as the Deerfield was nearing its highest level of the day. The boys were eyeing the rocks and boulders they’d learned to use as reference points. But it was getting harder to spot them, because the river was rising.
Several of the boys were afraid to do the drill, according to a report by the Dzialo’s private investigator, Robert F. Kerber, of New England Forensic Laboratories. The boy who was supposed to go before Adam declined. Adam volunteered to give it a try.
“That’s my son, the 12-year-old star hockey goalie with an ego the size of the Empire State Building,” Phil Dzialo says.
Before Adam Dzialo entered the water, one of the counselors left the site to take two other boys to meet their parents. At this time, approximately 1:30 p.m., one counselor was overseeing a dozen adolescent boys on the river, which far exceeded the camp’s own counselor-camper ratio guidelines.
Adam’s camp mates, who stood with the one remaining counselor downstream, watched Adam wade into the Deerfield and waited to do their heroic part. Within seconds, the boys on shore saw Adam flailing, his head bobbing up and down before he was pulled under. One boy quoted in Kerber’s report said he saw two rafts go over Adam. When the counselor standing downstream realized what was happening, she sent some boys up Zoar Road to find a telephone to call 911. The camp counselor had no means of emergency communication on hand, nor any sophisticated rescue equipment. All they had were two rope bags.
Under the direction of a Crab Apple Whitewater rafting guide, a raft was suspended between two ropes strung across the river and lowered down to where Adam’s life vest was bobbing in the water. Adam’s head was submerged. On the first try, rescuers tried to pull Adam up by his life jacket, but the jacket slipped off. Finally, they freed Adam.
The Charlemont Ambulance Service incident report stated that Adam had been trapped in about three feet of water for approximately 30 minutes. He had no vital signs. At 2:14 p.m. the ambulance rushed Adam to a heliport to be airlifted to Baystate Medical Center.
“We were working minutes away, five minutes or so, but they never called us,” Dzialo says. “The first news we heard was from the staff at the Baystate ER. They said, ‘get down here right away and don’t come alone.’”
Had GCC abided by long-established commonwealth laws regarding camp regulations, licensing and safety, Adam Dzialo would never have been instructed to float down the wild, rising rapids on the Deerfield River that summer afternoon in 1998. State camping regulations state clearly that a camper may not participate in whitewater exercises unless they have been certified by the Red Cross as a “Level 4″ swimmer. Adam was a decent swimmer, Phil Dzialo says, but he never took an advanced course and was not certified at any Red Cross level.
In Massachusetts, standard child care is closely regulated, but summer day care — camps — are overseen by the Division of Community Sanitation, a tiny three-person agency within the state Department of Public Health. While the division sets sanitation and safety standards for all camps operating within the commonwealth, it relies on local health boards to license and investigate the camps. Four days after Adam’s accident Kate Douglas, the director of Greenfield Community College’s Outdoor Leadership Program, received a cease and desist order from Greenfield Health Director Lisa Hebert. Hebert had read about Adam’s accident in the local papers. That’s when she learned GCC was operating a summer camp without a license.
Hebert’s order was moot. GCC’s Team Adventure camp ended for the year on the Friday Adam nearly drowned. It has not reopened.
These are some of the simple, painful facts the family lives with every day and which the college will be expected to respond to when Adam Dzialo’s civil rights case finally begins in Franklin Superior Court.
The family had, at first, filed their lawsuit against GCC in federal court on Oct. 23, 2000. This past summer the Dzialos changed venues, transferring their suit to the state Superior Court. It’s difficult to beat the state in federal court because the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects states from federal suits. The Dzialos faced the risk that they would have gone through a lengthy trial only to be reversed on a technical appeal, according to Sam Perkins, the Dzialos’ Boston-based lawyer.
At the heart of the Dzialos’ suit is their contention that the college infringed upon Adam’s civil rights by placing him in a dangerous situation and denying him both adequate protection and the means to protect himself, Perkins says.
“This is not just simple negligence,” Perkins says.