The day our daughter drowned
More than 100 people drown each year in Ireland. Kayleigh Flynn drowned in 2009, at the age of 16. Her family tell her story and appeal for awareness of water safety
Sandra Flynn and her daughter Jasmine in front of a patchwork quilt they had made from Kayleigh Flynn’s favourite clothes. Kayleigh, Sandra’s daughter, was 16 years old when she died. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times
June 24th, 2009, was, as Sandra Flynn recalls, roasting hot in Dublin. Her husband, Terry, was at work. Her younger daughter, Jasmine, who is now 20, was at a cousin’s house. Conor, who is 17, and was born with fluid on the brain, was at his special-needs school.
Sandra was staying at home, in Blanchardstown, in Dublin, that afternoon, as he wasn’t going to his carer afterwards. Sandra and Terry’s eldest child, Kayleigh, who was 16, was going out with friends. Before she left she told her mother that she should get out and enjoy the beautiful day.
Kayleigh and her friends went to hang out at the Wren’s Nest Weir, on the River Liffey at the Strawberry Beds, near Chapelizod, in west Dublin. The teenagers hadn’t planned to go swimming, but some of them went into the water, in their shorts and vest tops, to cool off, splashing along the top of the weir, where the river was apparently no more than calf deep.
None of them knew that the currents were much stronger than usual that day, as locks had been opened upriver to provide extra water for canoe racing.
Kayleigh and her cousin began to wade across. When they were almost at the other side of the weir Kayleigh felt the current pulling her, and she reached for her cousin’s arm. They lost their footing and fell into the water. Her cousin surfaced. Kayleigh did not: her legs were caught beneath a submerged tree trunk, trapping her underwater.
It was more than 20 minutes before emergency services could lift Kayleigh’s head out of the water, in a failed attempt to resuscitate her, and almost an hour before they could free her legs.
Sandra “That day is like a nightmare printed on my brain. I was at home, waiting for Conor’s school bus to come, and my phone rang about 4pm. It was one of Kayleigh’s friends. She said, ‘Kayleigh is in the water, and we can’t find her.’ She was hysterical.
“I was frantic. I rang 999 and gave them the details, and they said they had received the call and the emergency services were on the way. I just wanted to get there. I don’t drive, and I was frantically trying to get a lift somehow to get there.
“I rang the parent of one of the other friends who was there too, and the mum turned up in her car at the same time Conor’s school bus pulled in. I had to tell the driver it was an emergency, and could he drop Conor to his carer, even though he wasn’t supposed to do that. Poor Conor didn’t know what was going on. Then we just took off.”
Jasmine “I had been at my cousin’s house, and we were all playing out on the road. Then we went to another house, and her mam was rushing off, and the other people there wouldn’t let me leave the house.
“Everything was so weird, the way they were saying I had to stay there, and the way her mam had to rush off. I didn’t know what was going on. I was really frustrated, and I wanted to go to my own house, so I left, but one of my friends kept following me.
“I got to the front door, and it was open. My mam wasn’t there, but the door wasn’t locked. I thought that was so strange, because she’d never leave it unlocked if there wasn’t anyone there.
“The minder wasn’t meant to have Conor that day, so I thought that was odd too. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Sandra “I had never been there before, at the weir by the Strawberry Beds where they had gone. We got out of the car at the top of this kind of hill, where I couldn’t see the water. One of Kayleigh’s friends was there who had been in the group that day. I knew all of them. They were in our house all the time; we had an open house.
“He started taking me down the path, and then the guards were there, blocking my way. They wouldn’t let me go down any further. I was screaming and screaming – ‘Let me down to my baby’ – but they wouldn’t let me past. I know now they were trying to protect me, and they didn’t want me to see the emergency services working on her, but I didn’t see that at the time. I just slumped to the ground, hysterical.
“Then I got angry and was punching the side of the ambulance that was there, and asking everyone who passed if they had any news of her. I was out of my mind, really. I had been told she had been located. I didn’t know then that they couldn’t get her whole body out of the water. They had her head out of the water and were trying to resuscitate her. They were working on her, and didn’t want me to see it.
“People I knew had come from everywhere. I don’t know how they knew. One of them brought me back up to the main part of the road, and then it dawned on me to ring Kayleigh’s dad. He was miles away; he works with horses and was at a race meeting for work, so he was quite far away.
“There was a pub across the road that was closed. We knocked on the door, and they opened up and brought us all in, and gave us tea.
“Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime, I could see the guards clearing the traffic for the ambulance. I had lost the person who had given me the lift there: she had her own daughter to attend to, who had seen everything and was very traumatised.
“I approached a guard and said, ‘Can you take me to the hospital, please? That’s my daughter in the ambulance, and I have no way of getting there.’
“A Garda car took me and my sister-in-law to Connolly Hospital. When we got there I saw two of Terry’s work colleagues, and then I saw Terry. He was hysterical.”
Jasmine “My auntie came and got me from the house I was in, and when I got into the car my brother and his minder were also there, which was weird. All my aunt said is that we have to go to hospital, there’s something wrong with Kayleigh, but she wouldn’t say what.
“When we got to the hospital I could see people I knew everywhere: Kayleigh’s friends, all my family, all these people sitting on the ground outside the hospital. They put their heads down when we were driving in, and I didn’t know why they were doing that, but something had registered with me that something was wrong.”
Sandra “They kept working on her. They let Terry and myself in to see her. In the back of my mind I knew she’d been under the water a long time. I knew there might be brain damage, but all I wanted was my child back.
“I can’t remember all the things I said, but I know I said ‘Fight this’ to her. I remember a nurse saying to me, ‘If you get her back she might not be the same Kayleigh,’ and I said, ‘I can cope with that: I have one disabled child; I can cope with another.’ Then we went outside and waited.
“A doctor came out to us. He was very young. He said they had done everything they could, and then he broke down.”
Jasmine “My mam told me Kayleigh was dead. I was so devastated and shocked I actually fell to the floor. I didn’t know what was going on. I had such mixed emotions. I didn’t know what to do. I was screaming crying.”
Sandra “We came home that evening about nine. I had asked for a lock of Kayleigh’s hair. Me and Terry just sat here in silence for hours on the sofa. He nodded off eventually for a short while. I couldn’t sleep. I was going round the house, cleaning the skirting boards, trying to get my head away from thinking about it for even a minute.”
Jasmine “I didn’t stay at home that night. Me and Kayleigh shared a room, and, as much as I wanted to be with my mam and dad and Conor, I felt I couldn’t go back to the house that night. I didn’t want to go back into that bedroom. I went and stayed at the house where all Kayleigh’s friends were who had been at the weir that day. We wanted to stay together.
“We were up all night. Her friends just wanted to talk about the good times with Kayleigh, and their memories of her. As much as it was the worst day and worst night of my life, they all had great stuff to say about her, and I’m grateful for that.
“When I went back home, and was finally able to go into our bedroom, I got into Kayleigh’s bed to go to sleep before the funeral. I could smell her off the pillow. It gave me a little bit of comfort.”
Sandra “It was weeks before we got the full story about what happened. Everyone who had been at the weir had to be questioned by the police, including the two brave boys who weren’t part of the group but who risked their lives going into the water to try and get Kayleigh out. I did get the report eventually, but I blocked all the details out.
“Kayleigh was always smiling; she was a bit of a comedienne. She had plenty of friends, and she was very caring. She had decided by helping out with her brother that she wanted to work with special-needs children, and she had done community care at school.
“If I hadn’t got more children I don’t know how I would have carried on. Conor being special needs, I had to carry on. I had to get up and dress him, wash him, look out for him. He knew in his own way that Kayleigh was gone. He lost weight, went very quiet. Eventually he came back to himself. I think we all grieve separately; we all keep it from one another. We are all afraid of upsetting each other.”
Jasmine “The house is not the same now. I’ve learned since Kayleigh died that you have to keep going; it’s that or give up.
“It was really, really difficult going back to school, because we had both gone to Coolmine Community School, and I knew I would bump into all her friends. But I had great support when I went back to school from my teachers, and the school did a lot of nice things to remember Kayleigh. Her friends all looked out for me and knew when I was having a bad day.
“I learned that, as much as you want to be on your own, you just can’t push your family and friends away. They got me through it, my family and friends and my sister’s friends. At times I wanted to push them away, but they kept coming back, and I know I still need them.
“What I’d like to say to other young people is, always think about your safety near water. I’ve heard of so many people drinking and then going into the water drunk. It’s so dangerous, and people don’t realise what they’re doing.
“Me and Kayleigh had silly little arguments over clothes, and I know it’s stupid, but I regret those so much now. She was so funny and so kind, and so supportive, and she was always there for me. I’d do anything to have my sister back.”
Sandra “It’s very hard making small talk with people about the subject around anniversary time, or Christmas, even though these people are friends and family. They ask how you’re feeling, and how do you answer that? You can’t. There is nothing to say. You automatically say you’re fine, because you don’t want to burden someone else with it, but you’re not fine.
“We took Kayleigh’s favourite clothes and gave them to someone, and she made a patchwork quilt of them. Her favourite hoody. A dress she wore for a confirmation. The T-shirt from Disney World, where we went for our last family holiday together. It’s over our bed.
“I would like all parents to talk to children to make them aware of the fact that water is unpredictable. It may look calm, but there can be currents, and it’s not just the sea that can be dangerous; we have so many inland waterways: canals, lakes and rivers.
“I’d like children to know how to throw lifebelts into the water and for them to be taught how important it is for that piece of equipment to be left there, and not taken away in antisocial behaviour. A water-safety class in school should be compulsory.
“I can turn off the events surrounding Kayleigh’s death, but I can’t switch her off out of my life. It’s like a heaviness around my mind and my heart, and that never really leaves me.”
Danger signs: Water safety
– Most people don’t splash, wave or make noise when in difficulty; all their energy is going into trying to survive.
– It takes only between 20 and 60 seconds for someone struggling to stay afloat to be submerged.
– Watch out for any of the following: head low in the water, mouth at water level, eyes glassy and unfocused, hair over eyes, gasping for breath, trying to roll on to back.
Staying safe around water: Tips to remember
– Don’t swim alone.
– Swim within your depth, parallel with and close to the bank or shore.
– Never use inflatable toys in open water.
– Swim at beaches with lifeguards on duty.
– Always supervise small children near water.
– If unfamiliar with the area, always heed local advice.
– Do not overestimate your ability in the water.
– Be aware of the possibility of submerged objects in inland waters.
– Never swim after drinking alcohol.
– If you see a missing lifebuoy, call the number to replace it.
– Wear a life jacket when in a boat.
– Talk to your children about staying safe around water.