By Jamie Long and Kelly Roche, OTTAWA SUN
Just four days before Christmas, an Ottawa mother has lost her nine-year-old son to the frigid waters of the Rideau River.
Identified by friends as Olisa “Oli” Joseph, his lone black mitten lay next to the path in Strathcona Park where he was pulled from the water. His blue scarf lay soaking wet nearby in the snow.
His mother, Donna, and four-year-old sister Adora live in a Wiggins Pvt. apartment building owned by Ottawa Community Housing, not far from where Oli went through the ice.
On the third floor of the building, the initials “OJ” are carved into the wall by the elevator, serving as a constant reminder to the friends there, who were devastated to learn of the boy’s drowning.
“The boy was in my house (Monday). My son was playing with him,” said Nzinga Candido, screaming and holding her hands to her head as she walked frantically around her apartment looking for her cellphone.
Not long after, she was on her way to CHEO to be with Donna, who she’s known for about five years.
According to friend Leslie Mwakio, 11, Joseph was a Grade 4 student at St. Brigid Catholic school on Springfield Rd. They took the bus to school together. He also attended an after-school program at Sandy Hill community centre.
“He was nice to everyone, even if people weren’t nice to him,” he said, holding back tears.
“I hope they get through this.”
Mwakio said Oli was looking forward to Christmas vacation and anticipating playing with his friends and having a good holiday.
The last time he saw Oli was Monday, when they played soccer.
Candido’s son Luzolo, 7, also played with Oli on Monday — they went snowboarding. On Tuesday, he appeared to be in shock about his friend’s sudden death.
Other tenants in the building said it was puzzling to hear of Oli’s death, because he wasn’t allowed outside very often.
“She’s the best mom,” resident Ruweida Shire said about Donna.
“I never see her walking by herself, she’s always with the kids.”
Mwakio’s mom Phillipina describes Oli as a “jolly kid. He’s the last kid you’d expect this to happen to,” she said.
Joseph was playing with another child in a small bay along the shore when he fell through the ice and started to fight the strong, cold current.
One witness, Vincent, told the Sun a woman with a dog ran to him crying. He said she was too hysterical to talk.
“She was pointing towards the river panicking and there was a boy behind her crying, too,” he said.
Horrified onlookers saw Joseph bobbing in the water, including nearby resident Jennifer Chenier who said he looked “lifeless” as the current swept him along the river.
“I was just really scared and in tears and I saw him. If no one was here, I would’ve jumped in,” said Chenier, who saw fire trucks and police cruisers arrive quickly as she watched the boy.
A witness called emergency crews to report the incident, and fire department water rescue crews raced to several spots downriver and began to deploy.
From Strathcona Park near Mann Ave., Ottawa firefighters used a hastily launched rescue boat to pull Joseph’s cold, lifeless body from the waters. They grabbed him from the swift current at Somerset St. E. and Range Rd. just southeast of downtown and about 800 metres downstream from where he had fallen in.
Firefighters believe Joseph went into the water at about 2:02 p.m. Rescue crews desperately tried to reach him, pulling the boy out 16 minutes later.
A person can only handle cold water for roughly four minutes before the danger of hypothermia becomes life-threatening, district fire chief David Thompson said.
Thompson told the Sun Joseph had no vital signs when he was taken from the water, so firefighters and then paramedics performed CPR. He still had no vital signs when he arrived at hospital.
At around 3 p.m. he was reported in critical condition with his mother at his side, but paramedics advised the boy died just before 4 p.m.