MORRIS HEIGHTS — A 10-year-old boy drowned after falling into the Harlem River during a party at a housing complex on Saturday evening, police and the medical examiner's office said.
Ebrima Wally, from Morris Heights, had walked from his Walton Avenue home more than a mile away to the River Park Towers, and climbed a fence that separates the housing development from the Harlem River around 6:10 p.m, the FDNY said.
The housing complex was having a Family Day party, when the tragedy occurred, according to the tenant association president, and nearly 600 people were in attendance.
Ebrima's mother Binta Wally, 43, emerged at the family's Morris Heights home to speak to reporters, but frequently broke into sobs, crying "Allah Akbar" over and over, or "God is great," in Arabic. The family had emigrated from Gambia, relatives said, and a Muslim service was held at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Islamic Cultural Center at College Avenue and East 166th Street.
Wally told reporters she had given her son permission to go to the River Park Towers complex, which is surrounded by Roberto Clemente Park.
"He told me, 'Mommy I'm going downstairs. I'm going to the park," she said. "There are a lot of block parties over there, so I said OK."
She broke into tears again, and repeated, "I don't see my son no more. I don't see him," while staring at the floor. "He loved me so much. Every day he said, 'Mommy I love you,'" she said. "I miss my son."
Ebrima's sister, Bintou, 17, quietly cried as she told reporters how it felt to lose her only sibling.
"He was the only one I got," she said. "He would always come to me and tell me he loved me. I never told him enough how I loved him.
"He loved family so much," she said, tears streaking down her face.
At Richman Plaza, where the fall took place, tenant association president Leon Johnson, 73, explained that the River Park Towers were originally built in 1974 to be part of the Roberto Clemente Park, and built with walkways that run behind them along the river's edge, featuring views of the Harlem River and the park.
"This is very deep and very trecherous water," he said, and pointed out the area he and others think Ebrima must have slipped over the protective fence while climbing on it. He said a group of children were at the fence when he and the building manager came running down, but most of the scattered.
The 3-foot-high iron fence that curves towards the buildings appeared low enough for older children to hoist themselves on, and cement blocks near the perimeter also provide a boost to getting up to the thick metal fence. On the other side of it, a narrow cement ledge is the only foothold before a roughly 6-foot drop to the water.
Johnson said the 12th annual Family Day party was winding to a close when the accident occurred, but that several hundred people were milling about when a little girl came running to the plaza from the walkway shouting "a boy fell in the water!"
Two jet skiers were already on the scene, he said, doing dives from their jet skis in hopes of finding the boy. Johnson said they had no luck.
"The FDNY had divers working on it, but they couldn't pull him up," he said. Eventually, he said, the boy was found caught in debris under the water according to rescuers on the scene. The medical examiner's office said the death had been due to accidental drowning.
Hamidou Camara, 54, Ebrima's uncle, who consoled family members at the Walton Avenue apartment, said Ebrima was a well-behaved boy.
"He didn't go around on the streets. He was always either at school or in mosque," said Camara, pointing out that the family had enrolled the children in Arabic school all summer long. "They're good kids."
He heard Ebrima was with other children, but he said, "We don't know exactly what was going on," before the fall, but he blamed the housing complex's inadequate fence for his tragic loss.
"There's got to be something wrong with the fences if a 10 year old can climb over," said Camara. "I think the problem is that the fence is not high enough."
The NYPD said it found no criminality involved in the fall, but said a New York State Parks Police investigation was ongoing. Calls to the state were not immediately returned.