Family seeks independent investigation into Loudoun Co. drowning near Potomac River

The mother of 16-year-old Fitz Thomas — whose June 4, 2020, drowning in a creek near the Potomac River prompted scrutiny of why it took so long for first responders from both Virginia and Maryland to locate the teen — is calling for an independent investigation.

Members of the Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors were briefed Wednesday on the county’s fire and rescue department’s progress toward implementing recommendations developed after Thomas drowned in a creek that feeds the Potomac River. During the incident, 911 calls for assistance were received by call centers in both Loudoun County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

A 77-page report, jointly conducted by the fire and rescue departments of Loudoun and Montgomery counties, was released in September 2020. According to the report, Thomas had been underwater for more than 25 minutes when his friends and bystanders located him in  the water, and pulled him to the shore.

Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson told the board that 37 of the report’s 42 recommendations for policy, procedure, staffing levels, and training are either 90% or 100% complete, with the rest on track to be fully implemented in coming months.

However, during the public comment period before the fire chief’s presentation, Pastor Michelle Thomas said an internal investigation isn’t sufficient to ascertain facts.

“When you’re really serious about getting to the core of the issue, you call in external investigators,” Thomas said, asking the board to authorize a third-party investigation of the incident.

Johnson described some of the changes that have been implemented, including having both Loudoun and Montgomery immediately launch crews toward the Potomac River when a 911 call is received.

“This change increases coordination between two states by acknowledging that dispatching crews to both sides of the river until the exact nature of an emergency incident is ascertained by first responders on the scene just makes sense,” Johnson said.

New technology, including the Emergency Services Internet Protocol Network, is now part of the county’s emergency communication system, Johnson said.

“One of its important features is the ability to route 911 calls based on a caller’s physical location,” he said.

During her statement, Thomas asked the fire chief and county to stop describing “the false narrative” that her son was dead when he was pulled from the water.

“It doesn’t share that on the 911 reports, the calls, nor does it share that in the medical records,” Thomas said.

Since Thomas’ medical records and autopsy report are not public, the county has said it is limited in considering other policy or procedural changes.

According to a staff report presented to the supervisors: “The county extended an offer to the Thomas family to share the cost to conduct a review of the cause of Fitz Thomas’ death by a jointly selected, independent medical examiner. However, the Thomas family declined the offer.”

Thomas told the board: “We’ve already done that. We paid $6,000 for a medical examiner. Because you don’t like the result doesn’t mean that we need to do it again.”

Thomas has said a civil lawsuit is possible.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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