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Sunlit days of hiking and canoeing for a group of Toronto students exploring Algonquin Park ended in tragedy Wednesday afternoon when the body of their 15-year-old classmate was pulled from the water.
Jeremiah Perry disappeared below the surface of Big Trout Lake on Tuesday, sparking a nearly 24-hour search effort in the provincial park near Huntsville, Ont.
He was among 33 students from C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute and Westview Centennial Secondary School who arrived at the park on Sunday for a week-long outdoor-education excursion as part of the summer-school curriculum.
Staff on the trip called Ontario Provincial Police around 8 p.m. Tuesday after Jeremiah did not resurface during a swim.
Members of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) conducted a preliminary search that evening, and then resumed Wednesday morning with OPP and several other agencies.
Divers found the boy’s body around 3:25 p.m. Wednesday. Const. Catherine Yarmel couldn’t say whether Jeremiah was found close to where he had first disappeared in the lake.
While the search was ongoing, a Ministry of Natural Resources seaplane began to airlift the remaining students from the interior of the park.
Among the first to be picked up was Jeremiah’s 17-year-old brother, who had been camping in a separate group of students.
He was greeted by his parents who were waiting at a command post near Smoke Lake with police and the principal of C.W. Jefferys. The prinicipal and other officers were the ones who told the family about the discovery of Jeremiah’s body, board spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said.
“It’s not the outcome we had hoped for,” she told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “You hear ‘missing, presumed drowned’ and it’s the ‘presumed’ part that gives you hope all day.”
The school trip was cancelled following Jeremiah’s disappearance. There are, however, still be some students in the park.
A second Ministry of Natural Resources plane was sent to pick up the remainder of the children after the first plane broke down Wednesday. The students on the leadership trip had been separated into two groups and Schwartz-Maltz said that the second group had been trekking back.
Those students and supervisors will paddle out through Lake Opeongo on Thursday.
Eighteen kids were airlifted from the park. They met with police for interviews, and then began the more than two-hour trip back to Toronto shortly before 10 p.m., according to to Schwartz-Maltz. A counsellor from C.W. Jefferys was with them to help them process the events of the last two days, and grief counsellors were to be waiting at the school.
“We will bring them back as quickly as possible and reunite them with their parents,” Schwartz-Maltz said. “It’s a difficult situation.”
Students gathered outside Jeremiah’s school Wednesday described him as a nice boy and a strong player on the basketball court.
“He was a nice guy. He had a good heart,” Grade 12 student Yasir Ibrahim said.
Jahein Johnson shared several classes with Jeremiah and said the teen had moved to Canada during the school year.
Neither boy could say whether Jeremiah knew how to swim.
More than 35,000 students are involved in summer-school programs across the TDSB, and the Algonquin trip is “one of many outdoor-education programs,” according to Schwartz-Maltz. She noted that all students are required to pass a swim test before they can go on such trips, but she could not provide details about what such a test would entail.
A superintendent with the Toronto District School Board echoed Schwartz-Maltz in saying that all students were tested on their swimming ability.
“We know every single process and procedure was in place to ensure the safety of our students and our staff,” Karen Falconer said. “So the sadness of this is even more profound in light of how seriously we take that safety.”
Six adults were accompanying the 33 students on the trip, which was a better supervision ratio than the typical 15 to 1 for such excursions, Schwartz-Maltz said.
The students would have learned about the outdoors and leadership skills on this particular trip, she said. The students can earn either a Grade 10, 11 or 12 credit, she said.
“We’ve been running them for years and years and years and they are very popular.”