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Families of Fla. Drowning Victims Seek Answers from Responding Paramedics

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Their questions were blunt and laced with anger and frustration. The family members of two Bradenton men who drowned in a vehicle crash Halloween night were desperately seeking answers.

Relatives of Johnnie Chubby Schoolfield Jr. and his longtime friend, Theo Thomas, gathered with friends and community activists Wednesday night to confront the Manatee County paramedics who did not rush into a pond that night in Bradenton to save the men.

The forum, arranged by the Big Bro Community Task Force, was supposed to bridge the gap between the grieving family members and the professionals whose mission is to save lives. The dialogue was heated, with voices carrying over each other. For the most part, the relatives left unwilling to accept any explanation for what happened.

Y all sat there and watched our kids suffer, and it s wrong, said Schoolfield s mother, Joann Monts, shaking her head in disgust in a conference room at the Sickle Cell Foundation Center. It ain t justified what happened here.

For the paramedics, the meeting was a chance to publicly address the family members for the first time since the crash at the end of a dead-end street near Southeast High School.

The emergency responders said they sympathize with the family members, saying paramedics suffer emotionally, too, when a life is lost. A lieutenant who was the first paramedic on the scene that night cried near the pond.

Just as paramedics do not rush into a burning building, however, they are not trained to make a water rescue. And they do not have the same equipment that firefighters have on their trucks, Emergency Medical Services Capt. Larry Leinhauser said.

Wearing lifejackets, firefighters dived into the pond but were unable to save the drowned men.

Daren Coleman was the second paramedic on the scene within minutes of the crash, which happened about 11:15 p.m. when a car, driven by Schoolfield, slammed through two fences and submerged in about 15 feet of water.

I m going to bring that brother back. That s my job, Coleman said, explaining why he remained on the pond s edge. I m set up, ready to roll. I have to do my job. Do you think I want to see this brother drown? No, I don t. This was an unfortunate event -- period.

Coleman said there was no procrastination, no missteps. The paramedics, and the fire crews that responded, did everything they could to save Thomas, who authorities say was still alive when emergency responders pulled up.

Thomas, according to witnesses, was screaming for help, thrashing about in the center of the retention pond.

A 911 dispatcher told one caller not to let any bystanders in the water because it would be too dangerous to save him.

Two firefighters, Coleman said, rushed into the water but could not find Thomas, who had gone under for the last time.

The EMS supervisors at Wednesday s meeting said the county is taking steps to better equip ambulances with floatation devices, attached to rope, that can be tossed into the water. Most ambulances have the ropes now.

And all paramedics will get training in water rescue, including the use of personal floatation devices. The chief of the county s marine rescue unit, Jay Moyles, called the training an update of protocol that is not going to change procedure.

Moyles said the county would provide a live demonstration of a water rescue for family members, and community activists, who wanted to learn more about techniques.

The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the crash to determine the events that led up to it.

The statements from two survivors -- two girls who were in the car, escaped and walked away -- are critical to the investigation.

Mark Edenfield, chief of the emergency medical division, said he recognized his words Wednesday night would not soothe the family members. But he urged the family not to lose faith in the paramedics.

Family members have planned a candlelight vigil this evening at the pond to remember the lives of the inseparable friends.

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