Dad Kenny Baxter talks lovingly of son Cameron killed in freak accident
Greenhill YMC A director Kenny Baxter lost his son Cameron after a freak accident at the facility a month ago. Here, he tells of the boy's zest for life and how the family is coping.
Kenny Baxter doesn't have to go far for a distressing reminder of the tragedy that claimed the life of his only son. Every morning when he steps into his office at Greenhill YMCA, the 52-year-old sees the log cabin from which his youngest child, Cameron, fell to his death.
The fun-loving teenager had been attempting to jump a short distance from the balcony of one chalet on to the roof of another when, on landing, his feet failed to gain traction on wet tiles.
Then, in what can only be described as a horrific, freak accident, the 18-year-old youth coach slipped and fell backwards, plunging some eight feet to the ground and sustaining massive head trauma after hitting a kerb.
It happened one month ago, on November 6, in a picturesque area on the slopes of Slieve Donard where father-of-three Kenny, director of the popular outdoor activity centre, has been based for the past 15 years.
The education facility had also become Cameron's residence in June this year, however, when he signed up for summer camp, which subsequently led to him enrolling on a year-long training programme to become an outdoor instructor.
Indeed, the popular teenager was so in thrall of his new digs and exciting vocation that, the night before the tragedy, he stayed at the family home in Castlewellan for only the second time in six months. But just hours after Mr Baxter drove the former Down High pupil back to his base at Greenhill the following day, ahead of a friend's birthday celebrations, he took a phone call that marked the beginning of nine days of living hell.
"I dropped Cameron off around 5pm on Sunday and then one of his friends rang me at 9.45pm to say that he'd had a bad fall," said Kenny.
"A group of them had been studying whether they could jump from the balcony of one cabin on to the roof of another cabin around two metres away, and decided not to do it.
"But then Cameron, who loves a challenge, had a go. He ran along the balcony and jumped. He actually got on to the other roof, but it was wet and his feet slipped and he came off backwards and hit the kerb with his head.
"This was a one-off. It was an awful freak accident. Cameron had really got into climbing and he loved it. Days before the accident, he had been certified to run all our climbing and high ropes activities."
Prior to the ill-fated jump, the former Castlewellan Primary School pupil had been enjoying some downtime with a few of his international colleagues, who are also enrolled on the instructor training programme.
"Their backs were turned as they were getting ready to leave the cabin, so none of his friends actually saw it happen," Kenny said.
"They are all first aid-trained and they knew how to look after him, but we now know he was very seriously injured and had an immediate devastating head injury."
After being rushed from Newcastle to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, Cameron underwent emergency head surgery before being transferred to the intensive care unit, where he spent his remaining days and nights attached to life support machines. He passed away on November 15, with his family by his side.
Kenny said that, over the last few weeks, Cameron's mum, Rosie (50), a nurse, and his two sisters have actually grown closer as they help each other in the struggle to comprehend their loss.
Sitting in their dad's office, 24-year-old Ireland international rugby player Ashleigh and Lyndsay (21), who hopes to go into nursing, admitted that, until this interview, they had not actually visited the scene of their brother's accident.
And, in the midst of everything - including a four-day wake followed by a funeral at Castlewellan Presbyterian Church on November 20 - Kenny admitted that it was the first time he has recalled events in detail since Cameron's death.
"On the way to hospital that Sunday, I felt it was very serious," he said. "But when we got to A&E, the first big gunk came when they asked us to go to the relatives' room with them. At that point Rosie and I thought he had died in the ambulance.
"Two of his friends - Reece and Ronan - joined us. They had travelled up in the ambulance with him and it was written all over their faces that it was serious.
"Just before midnight, we were told Cameron had a devastating head injury and that he may not survive - and even if he did it could be a life-changing injury.
"That was very difficult and, after hearing that horrific news, Rosie had a panic attack and needed treatment from the nursing staff."
Cameron was taken to theatre and then to intensive care unit around 3am on Monday, before which the family were allowed to see him.
"I was hopeful that he would pull through, but the reality was that we might lose him at any point," explained Kenny. "By this stage we were becoming aware that there were other scenarios almost worse than death.
"I know Cameron's zest for life, and I had an awful fear of him ending up in a situation where he was locked in a body. That haunted me the nine days I was in the intensive care unit even more than death."
As the prognosis worsened and the unthinkable seemed inevitable, the family, who stayed by his side during those long, dark days and nights, were each allowed to spend some alone time with Cameron.
Both Ashleigh and Lyndsay revealed that, when the medics were just about to do the final tests to confirm that he was brain dead, they both wanted Cameron to squeeze their hands to let them know he knew that they were there.
But Kenny had rather different feelings at the time.
"I would have been terrified if he'd squeezed my hand because I was worried that would be as far as it would get for the next 20 years," he said.
"I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be thinking that death was not the worse scenario for my son, but that's where we got to."
Despite his adventure-loving disposition, Cameron - who became the UK's youngest lifeguard when he gained his certificate on his 16th birthday - had before the accident experienced only one serious fall.
"He was rushed to hospital once when he was three years old after he fell off a stool in a McDonald's restaurant in Downpatrick onto a tiled floor," recalled Kenny.
"It looked like it was going to be very serious, but they monitored him overnight and he was alright.
"He always had a thrill-seeking nature. He always talked about sky diving and bungee jumping. He wanted sky diving lessons for Christmas, but he wasn't getting them."
Kenny paid tribute to his son's "zest for life", which saw him turn hero when he saved the life of his now 92-year-old grandfather Harry Baxter, who suffered a serious fall at his Co Down home just last year.
"He heard a clatter and ran downstairs to discover his granda had fallen through the fire surround screen, suffering horrific injuries," he said.
"Cameron performed first aid before the ambulance arrived and there's doubt his granda wouldn't have made it if Cameron hadn't been on the scene.
"Harry has Alzheimer's, but he knows that Cameron has passed away and when I see him he'll say, 'I'm very sad for Cameron, that boy saved my life'."
Kenny said that he and his wife, who doesn't intend to return to work until next year, have been overwhelmed by the warmth of messages they have received about their "wee star", who touched so many people's lives.
"She's gathering a lot of stuff up - his first wee pair of shoes, she has photos of him as a child by the bed now, she's washing his baptism gown - and just struggling on like the rest of us," he added.
The festive period will be extremely difficult for the Baxter family this year, but Kenny said his "worst point" came a couple of nights ago ahead of Greenhill YMCA's Christmas dinner.
"I worked with Cameron, so I dread every day - that's the hard bit because he was so much part of my life here," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"The downside is that I saw him around all the time and I was very proud of him, watching him develop and flourish, and now there's a massive gap there. The plus side is that everyone here knew him and loved him and they want to talk about him. He was enjoying life, living it to the full and every day was a new adventure. I'd love him back but I wouldn't want to take away from him what he had during those last six months."
Mr Baxter told how he had derived "massive strength" from the fact that his son was doing what he loved.
"As his sister Ashleigh pointed out, he doesn't know if he made that jump; he had that feeling you get when you're about to do something exciting," he said.
"That's where he was and it was over so suddenly. Knowing Cameron, it's the way he would have wanted to go.
"We gave him the greatest gift you can give to a young person, and that is the freedom to be himself and enjoy himself in a diverse environment. I hold dearly to all that."
The Baxter family is currently in the process of establishing The Cameron Foundation, which will work with youth and community groups and schools to provide free first aid courses and placements for young people at Greenhill who are not motivated by academia.
They also made the important decision to donate Cameron's organs.
"We know that's what Cameron would have wanted," Kenny said. "There were four matches found for his heart, liver, kidney and pancreas, and if we save one life we'll be very happy.
"We know that a middle-aged man who had only 24 hours to live received his liver. We are assuming that man probably has a young family, so what a fantastic Christmas it will be for them.
"It makes us proud and gives some consolation to think that a family is getting their father back because of Cameron."