My family and I lost our son, a loving husband and father of two, on October 27, 2018, in a routine dive turned deadly. We lost Jonny Burnworth at just 32 years old while working on an IID Dive Team recovery effort of a vehicle submerged in a canal. The story that the Imperial Valley Press and the Imperial Irrigation District have told publicly is a simple one — that his death was tragic, but due to a heart attack, unrelated to his duties on the job.
However, conflicting reports from eyewitnesses, some of which were never interviewed as part of the investigation, tell a completely different story. Blaming Jonny’s otherwise good health for his untimely death has served as a convenient cover for the deeply disturbing reports of what actually happened on that day last October. Over the course of the investigation, witnesses were selectively chosen and/or excluded as contradictory evidence demonstrating the truth did not fit the narrative the IID wanted.
Regardless, the only story that cannot be changed is the fact that we have forever lost Jonny as a son, husband, and father. As a family, we will never recover from his absence in our lives. But what we should be able to do is ensure that his children, my grandchildren, are taken care of and that the truth of this tragedy is told.
Both of these wishes have been denied to our family. The IID Board of Directors has denied any responsibility and all wrongdoing and, in doing so, denied his children and widow any compensation to feed and clothe them in the years to come without Jonny’s support. We as a family have also been denied the truth of what caused Jonny’s life to be cut short.
After seven months of requesting documents on the investigation of his death, we were only able to obtain the OSHA findings from a newspaper reporter, after being denied access for over half a year by the IID. The OSHA report demonstrated that standard operating procedures were not followed at the time of Jonny’s death. The testimony of handpicked witnesses, some who were not present at the scene, directly contradicts that of medical evidence and key eyewitnesses who were never questioned about what they saw.
The incompatible stories of what happened at the time of the accident raise many questions and one pressing fear: That the investigation of Jonny’s death reveals a concerted attempt by IID to conceal the truth for political purposes and to protect personal relationships between IID directors and dive team management staff.
Rather than treating Jonny’s death as a tragedy, seeking the facts, and making a modest effort to make his children and widow whole for their permanent loss, his death has become politicized. Why? The disturbing details about the IID Dive Team revealed by Jonny’s death threatened the continued existence of this favored pet program of the IID Board of Directors, even as the very team tasked to save lives claimed one of its own. As a result, the IID Board and staff have reverted to politics and denying the truth to protect the program — even at the expense of children and a widow.
What has become clear to our family is that the members of the IID Board of Directors, by their actions, have demonstrated their commitment to continue the practically unlimited and growing funding for its Dive Team, but not to the children of one of its members killed on the job. The recent calls to reinstate the troubled dive team coupled with the total denial of any damages for Jonny’s young family are deeply disturbing.
To date, the IID Board, staff, and dive team management have done nothing to reevaluate the program to prevent another senseless death. Basedon calls to reinstate the dive team; Jonny’s death appears to be little more than an inconvenience to be swept under the rug. For dive team participants and patron IID Directors to acknowledge responsibility for Jonny’s death would be akin to killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.
The Dive Team’s budget approaches nearly $1 million annually, funding an abundance of flashy and expensive gear and highly compensated overtime pay. In essence, awarding Jonny’s children and widow even modest consideration would admit responsibility for his death, threatening the continued existence of the lucrative program.
At first, compensation for Jonny’s death was approved by IID. The IID Board of Directors reversed this approval by denying any claim and any responsibility. Standard procedure or not, the actions of the IID Board force our family to relive his death every day as we are given no choice but to resort to legal remedies to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of Jonny’s children without his presence and support. It was not hard to do the right thing. However, by the IID Board’s actions,they have prioritized a lucrative program for the living over the well-being for the family of the dead. We as a family are heartbroken that the self-insured IID chose to deny any consideration to the young, voiceless children of one of their own employees killed on the job.
As our family continues to mourn the loss of Jonny, we pray that another tragedy will not take yet another life of an IID diver. As nothing has been done to prevent another senseless tragedy, let alone admit wrongdoing, we feel that only God’s hand, and not IID, will be able to save that life. Moving forward, our family is forced to continue to relive his death daily as we pursue his truth and justice for his children.