Autopsy: Jacksonville 3-year-old accidentally drowned in septic tank

Amari Harley's death sparks call for changes to septic system safety

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Francine Frazier - Senior web editor

Photo of Amari Harley on image of growing memorial at Bruce Park Wednesday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The death of a 3-year-old Jacksonville boy whose body was found in a tank at an Arlington city park has officially been ruled an accident by the Medical Examiner's Office.

The I-TEAM reported last month that investigators with the Department of Children and Families had confirmed the boy drowned in a septic tank at Bruce Park.

The Medical Examiner released Amari's autopsy report Thursday, which confirmed that he drowned. The report said he died from asphyxia due to inhaling septic tank contents.

Amari was reported missing Oct. 22 after he disappeared while playing at Bruce Park, where his family was attending a birthday party. His body was found later that night in an underground sewage tank at the park.

Police had said from the beginning that no foul play was suspected in Amari's death. But whether safety measures were in place to prevent the boy from falling into the tank remains unclear.

Amari was reported missing about 4:30 p.m., and the search grew to involve dozens of officers, citizens and a helicopter. A Florida Missing Child Alert was issued at 7:15 p.m.

Police called Public Works about opening a water tank at the park and confirmed it was large enough for Amari to get in. The tank was drained and Amari's body was found at 7:50 p.m.

City officials said the underground tank in which Amari's body was found is part of the lift station of the septic system for restrooms at the Arlington park.

If the tank access was not secure, it would be at least the third time since April 2016, according to records obtained by the I-TEAM.

City workers screwed makeshift wooden covers onto the openings to the tank the day after Amari died. Plastic or fiberglass coverings that some residents reported had covered the opening previously were sitting by a nearby trash can. The plywood was soon replaced with a concrete lid.

Police said they were searching for surveillance video that could show how Amari got into the tank. It's believed he fell in accidentally.

The boy's death sparked calls for change from Mayor Lenny Curry, who initiated inspections of all similar tanks at Jacksonville parks and said he wants the covers and safety measures around the tanks standardized across the city.

After Amari's death, the I-TEAM got records for all the park septic tanks in the city and visited them in person. Records show an inspection on Oct. 31, after the boy drowned, noted that the pumps needed to be replaced at Bruce Park.

Curry has previously declined to comment on any liability the city might face in the boy's death, saying the city wanted to allow time for police to complete the investigation.

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