Portland student's death a reminder about importance of life jackets

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PORTLAND — Officials say the death of a teenager who fell off a kayak in Falmouth waters could likely have been prevented had he worn a life jacket.

Mohammed Al-Ammar, 14, of Portland, was reported missing June 2 after his kayak overturned in the Presumpscot River. His body was recovered the next morning.

Falmouth Police Lt. John Kilbride on Monday said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner could take two to three weeks to release the official cause of Al-Ammar’s death, although he suspected it was drowning. He said indications were that the boy could not swim.

The Deering High School student is being remembered by school staff as a friendly and kind person.

Conni Daigle, an English language learner teacher at Deering who taught Al-Ammar, remembered him as charismatic, engaging, positive, curious, helpful and friendly.

“He made friends quickly, played soccer with the other kids on the weekend, and was known by so many throughout the school,” Daigle said Monday. She added he “had many special friends here at Deering, students and staff alike.”

Jeanne Crocker, interim superintendent of schools, issued a statement Friday morning after Al-Ammar’s body was recovered, saying the school was providing grief counseling.

“Our hearts go out to Mohammed’s family and friends and the entire Deering High School community,” Crocker’s statement read. “The school is the process of offering counseling support to Deering students and staff who need it.”

According to Kilbride, Al-Ammar was in a two-person kayak that overturned Thursday around 6:30 p.m. Al-Ammar was not wearing a life jacket, while the other young man was. Kilbride said a third boy was with the group but was onshore at the time.  Al-Ammar was last seen struggling in the water and did not come back up, according to Kilbride.

Sgt. Thomas Hale of the Maine Marine Patrol said Al-Ammar’s chances of survival “would have been much higher” had he been wearing a life jacket.

Maine Marine Patrol led the search that began after police responded around 7 p.m. Thursday. Crews searched until about 11 p.m. before halting until the next morning due to poor visibility and unsafe conditions.

Police and Marine Patrol officers returned to the scene at approximately 4:30 a.m. Friday and began searching along the shoreline. The Allen Avenue Bridge connecting Portland and Falmouth was closed to traffic while the search was conducted. Kilbride said about 20 people were involved; the Falmouth Fire Department, Maine Warden Service and State Police also participated in the search.

Hale said a remotely operated vehicle was used to search beneath the Allen Avenue Bridge; Al-Ammar’s body was found at 9:20 a.m. and recovered by divers approximately 15 yards downstream of the bridge in about 16 feet of water.

Hale said while an accident of this nature is never easy, the case “hits home with a lot of us that have young children.” Hale also urged anyone going out on the water to use common sense and take appropriate precautions, such as wearing a life jacket and letting someone know planned times of departure and return.

“The water is still cold,” Hale said Friday. “You’re not as strong as you think you are.”

A press release from the Marine Patrol Unit said events like this “are tragic reminders of the importance of wearing a life jacket on Maine’s coastal and inland waterways.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Mohammed Al-Ammar, 14, of Portland, apparently drowned while kayaking on the Presumpscot River in Falmouth on the evening of June 2. His body was discovered the next morning close to where his kayak had overturned.

Officers from the Falmouth Police Department and Maine Marine Patrol recovered the body of missing kayaker Mohammed Al-Ammar on June 3 in the Presumpscot River beneath the Allen Avenue Bridge. The 14-year-old, who was not wearing a life jacket, fell off a kayak the night before.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.