I had just been to the Revolution Cycles shop on M St NW in Georgetown when a low-flying news helicopter attracted my attention. I walked with my bike onto the approach road to the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Down below on the C&O Canal tow path I could see a lot of police milling about. There appeared to be a body floating in the canal.
I have often wondered who the body was and I was surprised and horrified by the grim scene unfolding. In the photo the assembled police, fire crew and other security personnel (there is even a police dog visible in the big group) stand around in huddled groups. One policeman holds a long yellow boat hook which is holding the body close to the canal bank. On the mid-left of the picture two young men, one in shorts and deck shoes, stand grimly silent with their hands in their pockets.
The big police diver in his yellow and blue suit stands with his left hand on his hip, starring grimly down at the body. A tarpaulin bag and rope lies on the tow path behind him. Everyone knows that someone is going to have to pull the body up the bank.
Another policeman with the blue stripe down his trousers (apparently adopted from a US Cavalry uniform) turns to look down the canal as if expecting something or someone to arrive. The black policeman in the blue shirt takes notes.
I took a few photos from the bridge and then I couldn't watch any more. It just seemed ... I just felt ...too mawkish, too invasive, too prying, too much the voyeur on a scene of macabre horror around the unnassailable reality of death.
But I kept one of the photos I took that day. In 2013 I Googled the date I took the photo and 'drowned' and 'C&O Canal'. The initial search results took me to a strange site called Red Alerts and a story posted by a Rob Taylor on 29th April 2008 called 'The Smiley Face Killers: Detectives Unveil a Horrific Theory in the Mysterious Deaths of Dozens of Young men' revealing a possible 'nationwide serial killing cult' targetting male, white, promising students. Through correspondence on the site I found a name that I then used as a search term.
I eventually found an article first on a blog called the EBD Blog which covers emotional and behaviour disorders in children and young people. The article was blog post dated 28 July 2009 called 'Danny Watt's story'.
The search results also listed a Washington Post article dated 28th July 2009 by staff writer Tom Jackman titled 'Dual Disorders Are Rarely Treated Properly'. It told the story of 21 year-old Danny Watt and his struggle with mental health issues.
Danny was found face down in the water of the C&O Canal in Georgetown by two students at 3.30 on April 14th 2008.
It was an end that Danny's parents, Bobby and Mary Watt of Reston, had struggled to stave off for many years. But after refinancing their house three times to put their son in every substance abuse and mental health program imaginable, after going to countless meetings and hearings and hospitals and jails, after badgering every possible person in Fairfax County who might help them, they could not save Danny.
The newspaper reports in great detail Danny Watt's mental health and addiction problems and his parents' struggle to get him help. It is a very sad story.
Danny Watt was pulled from the canal at 4.00 on April 14th and identified the following day from the business card of his last counsellor that was found in his trouser pocket. The medical examiner ruled the death was suicide by drowning.
The death of Daniel Michael Watt is recorded on the Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home website.
There is an interesting on-line follow-up discussion between the writer of the Washington Post piece, Tom Jackman, and Post readers of the treatment of dual disorders here.
There was also a National Public Radio broadcast discussion (3rd August 2009) that brought together Mary Watt, Danny's mother, and Dr Ken Duckworth, Medical Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
At one point Dr Duckworth concludes,
Well, the tragedy that's happened here, you know, is heartbreaking on every individual level, but if you take a step back, you know, you'll see that the people that have dual-diagnosis, co-occurring mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, are overrepresented in bad outcomes like this. And that the service system really hasn't figured out in a coherent, coordinated and welcoming way, how to see both parts of the person's experience as opposed to viewing it through one lens or another.
On April 14th 2014, the sixth anniversary of Danny's death, I received an email from Mary Watt who had seen my web page on the internet. The email said, 'I thank you for taking the time to research about the horrific death you witnessed. Our hearts are broken .... My husband and I thank you for demonstrating emotion to a total stranger.'
Danny and his family feel much less total strangers now than when I took that photo back on April 14th 2008. I have offered to take this page down but Mary Wyatt replied,