The day before his 18th birthday, David Tolulope Esan should have been preparing for a celebration with family and friends. Instead, his loved ones gathered April 5 at Faith Christian Fellowship World Outreach Center in Owings Mills, Md. for his funeral.
Esan, 17, a freshman at Hampton University who did not swim, drowned at a Freshman Week pool party on campus on March 20. University spokeswoman Yuri Milligan called the incident an “accident” and said campus police were investigating. But during a memorial ceremony at Hampton for Esan on March 27, his parents, Kemi and Ade Esan, asked that the case be transferred to the Hampton, Va. Police Department, the city’s law enforcement agency.
“We appreciate the investigation that is ongoing by the campus police,” his father, Ade Esan, read from a statement. “However, we are concerned about the circumstances leading to David’s death…In light of these concerns, we believe there should be a criminal investigation of all university personnel and agents involved with the pool party.”
Sgt. Jason Price, a Hampton city police spokesman, told the AFRO on April 2 that his agency is “working together” with the university’s police. Milligan confirmed that the city police “are now assisting with the investigation.”
The Esan family has retained attorney Jasper Nzedu, a criminal and personal injury lawyer who is president of the Northern Virginia chapter of African Christian Fellowship, USA. He wants to see the campus police removed from the investigation.
“From what we understand, they have asked the city to quote-unquote join the investigation, so we are sending a letter to the city…for a written explanation of what that means,” he said. “We don’t just want it to be an assurance to satisfy our call.”
Milligan said that “there didn’t seem to be any foul play involved” in the death. The university also issued a statement on March 27 saying that there were two university officials, three Hampton University police officers and three American Red Cross-certified lifeguards at the party and that CPR had been administered to David by the lifeguards.
“The lifeguards were positioned at an elevated stand, a deck-level stand and at the pool deck during the party,” the university said. It did not mention where the administrators and police were located.
But students who were at the party said there were no administrators or police in the immediate area when Esan was pulled from the water.
“There were no administrators in the pool, around the pool area,” said Hampton freshman Briana Logue, a close friend of Esan’s who traveled to Baltimore for his funeral. “They were outside. People were getting thrown in and not an administrator, not anyone, said stop it. No one said stop.”
About 300 family members and friends were on hand at the Owings Mills church for the wake and funeral. Friends and relatives, many of them in tears or appearing to struggle not to cry, filed past the light-colored wooden casket bearing Esan in a black suit and white shirt.
Photos of the youth flashed across three giant projection screens inside the sanctuary—a tiny Esan in overalls smiling from the doorway of a train, and Esan as a teenager, dressed in a University of Maryland hoodie, in obvious deep concentration as he played the piano. He was self-taught, friends said.
As the hour-long wake service concluded, Kemi Esan approached and knelt near her son, wrapping her arms around the second of her three children, embracing him one last time before pallbearers closed the casket.
As she wept, Ade Esan tried to comfort her as he wiped away his own tears. Their other sons, Victor, 9, and Daniel, 20, a junior at the University of Maryland College Park grieved quietly next to them.
The funeral service began with two hymns, including “As the Deer Pants,” one of David Esan’s favorites.
“David was a worshipper and he loved songs,” said FCF World Outreach Music Minister Aaron Carter as he began playing the piano. “Let us praise.”
In the opening prayer, Esan’s pastor, Rev. Robert Anderson of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, urged his loves ones to not despair.
“Absence from the body is to be present with the Lord,” he said.
Esan graduated a year early from Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville and enrolled at Hampton University to study pharmacy.
He was among hundreds of students who went to a pool party called by the Class of 2016 on March 20 at Holland Hall billed “Caution: Wet When Slippery.” A few minutes before midnight, he was found unconscious in the deep end of the indoor pool and was pulled out by three football players, according to students who were at the party. Emergency workers were called to the scene, but also were unable to revive him. Esan was pronounced dead at Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton on March 21.
“We got a call from the school saying they were trying to revive him. It was so sad,” Rev. Remi Olabipo said during the funeral service. “The sudden departure of David was tragic…To me, personally, I have lost a son—one that I will always be proud of.”
Esan’s former track coach at Western Tech, Shedrick Elliott III, told the congregation that he has hours of footage of David running track and giving commentary on the games when he worked as a manager his senior year. Elliot joked that he remembered telling Esan not to talk so much during the races. As a result, Esan began to whisper his commentary.
He credited him with bringing peace to the team when players often disagreed. “David…made observations about the team and that led to the unified team we have today. He left a lasting impression on his teammates past and present,” he said.
Rev. Barry Brown, Colonial Baptist’s youth pastor, said Esan gave up track to focus on the church and playing piano.
“We were looking for a pianist for the church and when David came…and told me he played,” Brown said. “I will admit I was a little skeptical at first. I mean, a lot of people say they can play music, but they don’t really play. David grew as a musician beyond our wildest dreams.”
As Esan’s body was moved to a waiting hearse, his family filing behind, his mother became increasingly emotional. Her husband held her arm as they walked side by side, accompanied by their surviving sons.
Esan was buried later that day at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore. There was no repast. Church friends said the family did not have life insurance for Esan and that donations had been taken to help defray the cost of the funeral and burial.
Kyeree Williams, who managed the track team with Esan, said after the service that his smile “just lit up the room.”
Longtime friend Geraldine Ezeka said they had in common that they excelled in school.
“He always said we were the ‘smart Africans’ at Western Tech,” she said. “The last time I saw him was at my graduation party. I told him I would see him soon.”
Logue was among the Hampton friends who had driven north to Maryland to attend Esan’s funeral. Six hours after the funeral ended, she was still too distraught to speak.
Friends hope the investigation will be concluded soon. Esan had been warned by his parents to take care around water, was not the type to horseplay near the pool or pretend he could swim, they said.
“I just still don’t understand how no one could have seen him,” Western Tech alumni Victor Olalekan told the AFRO. “What I think is, people fool around sometimes. Someone could have pushed him.”
Students said Esan was pulled from the water by three football players. His friend, Jon Shaft, said in an interview that he was the first to attempt to revive him. Logue said she saw him administer CPR.
“I gave about one cycle and then the lifeguard took over,” Shaft said.
On March 21 Shaft tweeted, “I remember that moment: me pumping on his chest…mouth to mouth,” he said. “That was my brother. #RIPDavid.”