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Boy’s mother says camp never said he was missing

Kyzr Willis’s mother, Melissa Willis, was embraced by neighbor and family friend Aleida Nunez.
Kyzr Willis’s mother, Melissa Willis, was embraced by neighbor and family friend Aleida Nunez.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Until she could see his face, Melissa Willis was holding onto a terrible hope. Maybe the little body that had been pulled from the water Tuesday off Carson Beach, where her 7-year-old son had disappeared from his city-run day program, was somebody else’s child.

“God forgive me,” she said through tears Wednesday morning from her Dorchester home, as she waited for the call to come identify her son’s body. “I don’t want it to be him, I don’t. I don’t!”

But she knew. It was her Kyzr, her daredevil who loved to race his bike over the ramp his father built, jump on his Pogostick with no hands, and roller skate backward.

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Yet she couldn’t understand how her strong and daring boy — a good swimmer — could have wandered out of the Curley Community Center in South Boston, slipped into the water and apparently drowned, unseen by a single camp counselor. Willis had not slept; she spent the night in Kyzr’s bed.

“I sent my kids to a camp!” she cried, her voice ragged. “I put them in your hands! I put them in your care!”

City officials on Wednesday placed the center’s director on paid leave and launched a review of more than 50 drop-in and summer camps run by the city’s Centers for Youth and Families. Police investigators are trying to piece together the timeline of the boy’s fatal disappearance Tuesday afternoon, when he apparently escaped the notice of two dozen teenage counselors and eight lifeguards that city officials say were present.

“We’re going to act quickly on any potential improvements,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at an afternoon news conference after meeting with the Willis family. “We’re going to find out what happened and when we do, we’ll take appropriate actions.”

Walsh did not identify the employee placed on leave. The city appointed an acting director on Wednesday evening.

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Authorities said Kyzr, whose name is pronounced “Kaiser,” was last seen around 2:15 p.m. Tuesday in the L Street Bathhouse, which is part of the Curley Center. Melissa Willis said that he and his 9-year-old brother Ralph were at the camp together. Ralph told her they got out of the water, and while he went to get a drink, Kyzr went inside.

Then, Kyzr was gone.

But the first 911 call did not come in until about a half hour later, according to Boston and State Police. Officials were trying to determine what happened during that time, Walsh said. He declined to say what steps center employees took to locate Kyzr before alerting authorities.

“We will get the full story out, exactly what happened inside, when the search began inside the building for this young boy and what was the time lapse from when the search began inside until the police were called,” he said.

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said efforts to find Kyzr were complicated by conflicting information provided by witnesses at the scene.

“We had a lot of little kids telling us different things, so it was hard to figure out what actually happened,” Evans said.

Police say the death appears to have been an accident.

One law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said that the counselors appeared to have no solid information about Kyzr’s whereabouts. They told investigators the boy was last seen leaving the bathhouse and headed for the street, which sent officers out to scour the neighborhood, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak to the media.

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Melissa Willis said no counselors ever contacted her. Instead, she said, her 9-year-old niece called to say he was missing.

“They can’t find Kyzr,” she said.

Kyzr’s body was found at 7:10 p.m., about 20 yards offshore in front of the bathhouse, after Quincy Police detected an object on their sonar, police said. Investigators believe he had been in the water for at least three hours, according to the official.

Charles Kadlik Jr., who was on the beach around the time Kyzr went missing, said people were walking along the sand asking if anyone had seen a little boy in bright yellow swim trunks. Everyone on the beach was looking, he said. Word spread in the bathhouse that a child was missing, said Christopher Connolly, who was there. But at the time, counselors did not think the boy had gone into the water, although swimmers and boats were out searching, Connolly said.

Walsh said 56 children attended the camp Tuesday. The mayor said it was supervised by 25 teenage counselors, two supervisors, and the director of the Curley Community Center. There were also eight lifeguards on duty, including at least two assigned to the section of the beach where the children gathered, he said.

Walsh described the camp as a “drop-in” program that was not subject to the same regulations as other city camps.

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“Thousands of families entrust their kids every single day to us here in the City of Boston through our different programs,” he said. “And we take this trust very, very seriously.”

Walsh said Kyzr’s family told him the boy’s 9-year-old brother heard Kyzr scream. He said he had yet to review the family’s account with city officials.

Parents of children who attend the program and friends of the counselors defended the teenagers who work there. Sean Thomas, 36, of Dorchester, said he had sent his daughter, 11-year-old Bella, to the camp for three years.

“They are all really good neighborhood kids,” he said. “I would trust any of them with my daughter any day. They are just all good people.”

The older sister of one of the counselors said her brother is badly shaken by the boy’s death. Kyzr was “one of his favorites,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

“Him and his friends, it’s hitting them hard,” she said. “They would play with him every day . . . he was that kid that would just run up behind you.”

At the Condon Elementary School, where the camp was held Wednesday, parents and their children remembered the boy fondly.

Mullen Byrne, 10, said Kyzr was his good friend, and their favorite thing to do was play knockout, a basketball game that Kyzr was really good at, Mullen said.

“He also loved hermit crabs, and he loved to ride RipStiks,” said Mullen, who left a rose outside the community center.

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As she waited to identify her son’s body, Melissa Willis collapsed into the arms of a loved one outside her home, and looked toward the sky.

“Why did they take my baby? Why didn’t they take me? He was only 7!” she sobbed. “It’s a clear sky. The sun’s shining. That’s my baby. Why did they take him away?”


Maria Cramer and Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this article.