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Disabled teen out for sail dies after accident witnessed by mother

A disabled teenager out for a sailing trip last week was dropped while being lifted off a sailboat, fell onto the vessel’s deck and slid into the water.
Gabriel Pollard-1001620.jpg
Gabriel Pollard, 16. His mother Carrie Pollard says of the tragic incident: "He kept saying: 'Mama, I'm scared,' and that's the last thing he said to me."

A disabled teenager out for a sailing trip last week was dropped while being lifted off a sailboat, fell onto the vessel’s deck and slid into the water.

He was pronounced dead at the hospital, in what his mother said is an unfathomable end to a great life.

“He kept saying: ‘Mama, I’m scared,’ and that’s the last thing he said to me,” said mother Carrie Pollard. “It was horrible.”

The accident happened on June 21 about 4 p.m. a dock used by the Canadian Forces Sailing Association, a Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt recreational club, located off federal land at Munroe Head off Maplebank Road.

Gabriel Pollard, 16, had just finished sailing with the Disabled Sailing Association of Victoria when the hand-winch sling carrying him off a Martin 16 sailboat broke loose.

Gabriel, whose severe form of muscular dystrophy, diagnosed at age four, rendered him unable to walk and barely able to use his arms, was at the top of a hoist.

“And I hear this snap and he fell about four feet onto the sailboat on his back and his head snapped back and he slid into the water,” said his mother.

“I was screaming and I called the ambulance and all I could do was stand by until the end.”

Her son was wearing a life-jacket.

The male instructor in the boat entered the water to try to help.

“Mama, I don’t feel good inside, I don’t feel good inside,” Gabriel called out in pain.

Gabriel, who weighs about 170 pounds, also indicated that he was cold.

“They couldn’t get him out of the water, they didn’t have any way to get him out of the water,” said Pollard, who estimated her son was in the ocean for 12 to 15 minutes. “They seemed kind of lost as to what to do — in disbelief as to what had happened.”

Staff assisted by others eventually used the sling to help pull Gabriel onto the dock, Pollard said.

As he waited for the ambulance, covered in blankets, he could talk and had movement.

On the way to the hospital he had a seizure.

“They drove like maniacs to the hospital and I’m not believing this could happen to my son,” Pollard said. “I didn’t believe he was going to die, my beautiful son.”

At Victoria General Hospital, emergency doctors, pediatric specialists and anyone who could lend a hand tried in vain to revive Gabriel, Pollard said. “There was a lineup. It was amazing.”

Doug Nutting, the sailing association’s director of operations, said one of the three paid instructors on duty has been with the association since about 2016, and the two others are summer-student instructors who had started that week.

The association is run largely by volunteers, providing sailing opportunities for adults and children with disabilities.

The staff — ages 20 to 23 — are all Sail Canada certified instructors trained in life-saving and rescue skills including retrieving people from the water, Nutting said.

“There’s nothing they could have done to prevent this from happening,” he said.

“The bar that the sling, that the sailors ride in, detached from the lifting device. We know that the T-bar somehow disconnected from the boom it was attached to — which does the lifting — but we don’t know why. It was used to put him in the boat, so why it failed when they took him out of the boat, I don’t know.”

The equipment is visually inspected every day, Nutting said. “It was a totally unpredictable freak accident, and we had an impeccable safety record until Thursday at 4:30 p.m.”

When Gabriel was loaded in the ambulance, he was able to talk and move his limbs and “no one would have thought he would pass away,” Nutting said. “It’s just a very tragic thing that happened and our thoughts are with the family and we are making sure that we are supporting the staff through their trauma.”

The association, which has been operating since 1992, has used the same type of sling for more than 20 years. It is used across North America by similar groups, Nutting said.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, the investigative arm of the Canadian Forces Military Police, is investigating.

"We can confirm the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is collaborating the local coroner in investigating the circumstances regarding the death of an individual on June 21, 2018 at a dock used by the Canadian Forces Sailing Association, a CFB Esquimalt recreational club, located off Public Services and Procurement Canada land at Munroe Head,” said Capt. Jenn Jackson, public affairs officer, CFB Esquimalt.

The B.C. Coroners Service confirmed it is also investigating.

“We were notified by the hospital of the death and attended the scene,” said spokesman Andy Watson. An autopsy was performed in Kelowna. Pollard said she was told by the coroner that her son’s back was broken in two places and he died from that and aspiration of sea water.

“There’s no reason Gabriel should have died there,” Pollard said. “I want to know what caused him to die.”

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