Marines call Parris Island recruit drowning "tragic and preventable"

Published: Jun. 28, 2005 at 1:54 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2005 at 12:51 PM EDT
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Feb '05 - Tharp at Parris Island training pool
Feb '05 - Tharp at Parris Island training pool

(Sutton, W.Va.) June 28, 2005 - It was the fifth and final day of water survival training for Jason Tharp's platoon at Parris Island. He'd been struggling to pass the test.

The afternoon he died, the West Virginia native passed the 25 meter swim requirement in the shallow end. A swim instructor told investigators Jason got into the water "on his own free will," but about 20 minutes later, when it came time for the four minute float, a witness said Jason refused to get in the pool.

He was told by a swim instructor he had two choices, get in the water or he'd throw him in. Jason got in.

He received one-on-one training to blow up his blouse to use as a floatation device. Jason told his instructor, "I can't." Witnesses say he would scream when she let him go and at least twice he cried "let me out" after going under water.

One witness said he saw Jason go under five or six times, three seconds each time.

After two unsuccessful attempts at blowing up the blouse, the swim instructor told Jason, "Fine, if you don't want to listen to me, you can tread water." The report says Jason began to tread.

At one point his head went under again, the swim instructor said she pulled him back up. Finally, after three minutes of treading water without any assistance, the swim instructor in charge of the pool saw Jason go under for no more than three seconds and then pop back up on his own.

He yelled from the deck "get Jason out of the water" because he was having problems. As she pulled him to the edge of the pool, he had a faint pulse and wasn't breathing.

Right away they sounded the alarm and got Jason out. He didn't respond to resuscitation efforts. He was pronounced dead 49 minutes later.

The investigators concluded the swim instructor had a clear responsibility to remove Jason from the pool before he succumbed. The report also concludes the swim instructor failed to recognize or ignored warnings that Jason was too tired or overcome by fear to continue.

They believe she violated policy by not removing Jason from the water where unsafe conditions existed and by keeping him in the pool against his will. Investigators conclude she was frustrated and that frustration clouded her judgement.

Investigators believe he went under that final time due to exhaustion. The report also looks into what happened the day before Jason died. The incident caught on WIS video tape.

It says that Jason had been in the pool, but was refusing to get back in to continue to train.

Jason's senior drill instructor had taken off his hat because he wanted to talk to his recruit man-to-man. A swim instructor who overheard the conversation told investigators the DI started out in a conversational tone.

Three times, he told Jason get in the pool or go to the locker. Jason said no.

That's when the report says the senior drill instructor called military police to see if they would intervene. The swim instructor then goes on to say when the DI was on the phone, Jason started walking past him.

The DI grabbed Jason and told him stand back at the wall. Seconds later, Jason started to move again. This time the DI elbowed him.

The report states "all recruits are told they must keep a one arm distance between them and the drill instructors at all times. Jason violated this rule."

All five of the instructors were suspended the week after the WIS video aired and remain so. The report concludes the senior DI and the series commander should have disciplinary action.

A hearing similar to a civilian grand jury investigation will be held. One swim instructor could face a court martial in what the final report calls a "tragic and preventable" incident. An investigation conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) found no evidence of criminal conduct or intentional wrongdoing in connection with the drowning.

The report has several recommendations. Among them is to add a safety supervisor to all pool training. Second is to make the investigation required reading for all water survival instructors. Third is to look into the feasibility of installing a pool camera, both above and below the water. The report requests guidance in regard to immediate first aid for drowning victims.

Finally the report says the investigation should determine the death was not as a result of Tharp's actions.

News 10 spoke with the Tharps on Tuesday and they say they're pleasantly surprised and say they believe the Marines are taking some responsibility for their son's death.

Reported by Heather Brown
Updated 7:11pm by BrettWitt