“I saw him not smiling one time, for the last three minutes of a game Barcelona lost,” said Mitchell Freeman, 20, an Oxford native who lived with the Jacksonville State University student for more than a year before he died this weekend at the age of 21.
Charles, a Haitian student in JSU’s International House, drowned Saturday when a canoe he and three other students were paddling across a pond at Horn’s Creek Resort in Polk County, Tenn. flipped and they fell in the water, witnesses said. Charles did not know how to swim.
The group had arrived at noon for a community-building retreat at the resort, which has been an annual trip for the International House for about a decade, said program director John Ketterer. After eating lunch, the students divided into groups, with Charles’ set heading out for paintball. On the way back from the paintball course at about 3 p.m. Saturday, several members of the group decided to swim or boat across the pond while others walked the path around its edge. About 25 yards into the pond, the boat flipped and Charles never surfaced, Ketterer said.
Ketterer said Charles’ housemates immediately began to dive for him, forming a perimeter to systematically search for their friend, but they could not find him.
“We dove, we dove, we dove. It was just not enough,” said Mitchell, who was swimming ahead of the boat when it flipped. “That was the hardest thing for me, that we gave everything we could, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Within 5 or 6 minutes, 911 was called, and emergency personnel arrived on scene within 10 minutes, according to a statement from JSU. Ketterer said the fire chief and deputy medical examiner on the scene estimated that Charles had been in the water for 25-30 minutes when he was found.
At about 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, Ketterer informed his students that Charles did not survive, and they immediately departed for Jacksonville, where they were greeted at the university at about 9:30 by university administrators and a team of grief counselors.
“In this house, we love each other so much,” said Lara Lubienski, 20, an International House student from Austria. “It’s hard for us to describe how deep the bond is…It’s like not only a friend, a family member died. We are all very deeply hurt.”
In the midst of their grief, Charles’ housemates remember his upbeat spirit.
Mitchell remembered Charles’ most frequent refrain when greeted by his housemates in Haitian Creole, his native tongue. “Sak pase?”—How are you?—they would ask. The answer was always, “N'ap boule”—I’m good!—no matter the circumstances, Mitchell said.
“He found a way to laugh in every conversation that he had,” he said. “He was so content with life. He was so content to be here doing what he was doing that it rubbed off on people.”
Freeman and Lubienski said Charles, the youngest of nine children, was a strong Catholic, an excellent student, and a fiercely patriotic Haitian.
Charles’ route to the U.S. began in his hometown of Ouanaminthe, Haiti, shortly after the devastating earthquake in 2010. According to an article in The Rome News-Tribune, Charles served as the translator for Rome, Ga.-based physician Dr. Tommy Simpson when he traveled there as part of a trauma and relief mission. The connection continued after Simpson returned, said the report, and he helped Charles come to the U.S. for college.
“Charles was a brilliant person,” said Freeman, who noted that Charles spoke French, English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole and carried a 3.5 grade point average in a science-heavy class load.
“He worked really hard for it,” said Lubienski, describing him as a very focused, very ambitious person. “He really tried to make the best out of his time here. It was his dream to be here, and he lived it.”
The tragic loss of their popular housemate has brought the International House students together in a way that nothing has before, Lubienski said.
“If we could go back to that lake, I would change everything to get him out,” said Freeman. “But the fact that the house is so close now, Charles would love that…He would love that he made that happen.”