Ten months after watching helplessly as her teenage son was swept away in the Connecticut River, a Meriden mother is on a mission to prevent another family from enduring unspeakable tragedy.
It’s not easy for Jessica Vega to come to Haddam Meadows State Park. It’s the last place she saw her 17-year-old son Jay Agli alive.
“It was really, really hot that day,” she said. “But the water was really cold.”
It was June 11, 2017, the day a family trip to the park ended tragically.
Jay’s sister Kishana was wading on a sandbar when she stepped off a sudden drop-off and was pulled into the water by a strong current.
Jay immediately jumped in to try to save his sister. Jessica watched, horrified, as her son was carried away by the swift-moving river.
“He knew he couldn’t swim and he still jumped to get her,” Jessica recalled, tears welling in her eyes. “He gave everything for his sister until his last breath.”
A nearby boater helped to pull Kishana to safety, but Jay Agli never resurfaced. Multiple agencies responded for a search and rescue effort that would last two days before Agli’s body was eventually recovered.
Middletown Fire Department divers were part of that recovery effort just as they were in 2011 when another teenager, 18-year-old Hartford resident Dominic Sobota, drowned in the same spot.
Chief Robert Kronenberger said that part of the river can be deceptively dangerous for visitors unfamiliar with the area.
“The conditions are so different from what you may see on the surface to the bottom,” Kronenberger explained. “What may look like a nice soft current on top, as soon as you step off it could be running at a couple knots and it’ll pull you under quick, not to mention the drop-offs.”
But Jessica Vega said her family had no idea of the dangers that day because there were no signs posted anywhere in the park warning of the current or drop-offs.
NBC Connecticut visited the park in March, and the only reference to swimming was visible in small print in Section 23-4-1 (s) of the General Regulations on the park’s welcome sign. It reads, “Swimming is allowed except where posted as prohibited by the Department of Environmental Protection.”
There are no prohibition signs anywhere in the park.
“A lot of people said, ‘Get a lawyer [to sue]’ and I said, ‘For what? What happened was an accident, and that’s not going to bring him back,’” she said.
Instead, Jessica wanted something else – warning signs.
Beginning her mission in July, she went to town officials, her state representative, even members of Congress and the U.S. Senate. None would commit to helping her, she said.
“Nothing. They told me it was state, they didn’t have anything to do with it.”
But Jessica persisted, eventually making contact with the governor’s office.
Finally, in March, she received an update from the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection’s state parks director, Thomas Tyler.
Not only would the state install the warning signs at her request, he said, but they would also include Jay Agli’s name and story.
Tyler explained the decision in a statement to NBC Connecticut:
“Haddam Meadows State Park does not have a designated swimming area, but we know that some visitors to Haddam Meadows leave the park to enter the Connecticut River for boating excursions or to recreate on a sandbar in the River. For those who may not be aware of the risks of swimming in a river, and the currents that can exist there, hopefully this type of sign will provide that information. The family of Jay Agli has agreed to have his name and the circumstance of his drowning in the River included on the signage. While it is unusual to include such information on this type of sign, we feel that it helps make it a more powerful message, and we appreciate his family’s support in this effort.”
Chief Kronenberger said his department receives numerous calls for water rescues every summer and believes the signs could help, particularly if they’re added in both English and Spanish.
The signs will be installed at Haddam Meadows State Park before the start of this summer season. Jessica said she’ll be there on the day they’re posted and wants to see similar warnings posted at other state parks elsewhere along the river. She hopes others will be inspired by her example.
“A lot of people don’t know that they can do something,” she said. “A lot of people told me, ‘I don’t know why you’re trying; it’s state-owned, you’re not going to be able to get them.’ And I got them. I said, ‘You know what, if I can save another life and use my son as an example, that’s why I did it.’”
Jay Agli would have been a senior at Platt High School in Meriden this year. The school plans to honor him at graduation this June.
His sister Kishana will walk across the stage to receive Jay’s diploma.