On Aug. 28, a grieving mother wrote “the hardest post” she ever had to write on Facebook, sharing the details of her 9-year-old son’s tragic death during a boating trip.
“He was only 9 years old,” she said. “Most people don’t really know what happened and we hadn’t been fully willing to publicly share until we had autopsy answers.”
Free’s son, Andrew, passed away on June 6, 2020, from what news outlets called a tragic drowning after Andrew slipped off the family’s boat and into the water.
But Free and her family knew there was more to it than that, and they waited to share the details of their son’s sudden death until a full autopsy had been performed.
“His brothers were treated that night at St. Francis for Acute Carbon Monoxide poisoning,” Free wrote. “Andrew has been swimming since he was 2 years old—he was a STRONG swimmer—and yet, he didn’t even struggle.”
As Free suspected, the autopsy revealed that Andrew’s death had been caused by open-air carbon monoxide levels, a phenomenon caused by prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) emissions from a ride-on vehicle, even while fresh air is moving near the face of the rider. It has been known to impact four-wheeler and tractor drivers, as well as motorboat riders.
“His COHb was 72 percent,” Free wrote on Facebook. “His so-called ‘drowning’ was secondary to the fact that he would have never lived at that level. What does this mean? It means that Andrew was not going to live regardless of what happened next … All of this information was confirmed by a doctor friend and by the Tulsa County Medical Examiner’s office. ”
In her Facebook post, Oklahoma resident Cassandra Free made a heart-wrenching plea for people to make her post go viral so parents could be aware of the dangers of allowing children to ride on the back of a motorboat.
“We could’ve lost all three of our children that night,” Free said. “I do not want anyone else to ever experience what I am going through. I’m begging you—please share this!”
Parents readily complied, and it didn’t take long for the post to spread like wildfire.
Soon, the story caught the eye of Jenny Rapson, writer for Her View From Home, who felt compelled to help spread the word.
“Moms,” Rapson writes, “if you are like me, you had NO idea this kind of carbon monoxide poisoning is even possible.”
Free pointed out in her post that boat manufacturers and the CDC are aware of this not-so-uncommon danger but make little to no effort to educate the public.
“I know that boat manufacturers do know of the dangers and they’re not being proactive to help people stay safe,” Free asserted. “The CDC researches it, but no one has asked that boats be subject to annual exhaust inspections.”
In fact, Free is not wrong. The CDC website refers to open-air exhaust poisoning as “a common cause of reported unintentional fatal poisonings in the United States.”
This heartbreaking story should serve as a warning to parents and recreational enthusiasts all over the country.
Open-air carbon monoxide poisoning can impact anyone with prolonged exposure to recreational vehicle exhaust. However, children who ride at the back of a boat or near an exhaust pipe are at higher risk.
“You guys, this breaks my heart into a MILLION pieces,” Rapson wrote on the Her View From Home blog. “If you use motorized watercraft or ATVs, please be aware of this danger. Keep your little ones on parts of the boat that are farther from the engine, especially in calm waters. And please, please share this information with anyone you know who does.”
Each year, unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 400 people in the United States. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, fatigue and lethargy, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be prevented by using a CO detector and taking frequent breaks from potential exposure. If you suspect that you or a loved one has symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, call 911 and move the person to fresher air immediately if safe.
Free says she’s lucky that her other two sons walked away from the incident unharmed but adds that the idea that there was anything fortunate about this tragedy “still leaves a bad taste” in her mouth.
She adds: “I’ve been assured that my baby was so far gone that he did not cry out for me in his mind as he died. He went to sleep and that was it.”
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