by Linda Orr

Joseph Paul Orr was only twenty-five when his life was tragically ended by an accidental drowning. For a few weeks, he and his friend had been going on hikes to spend some time together. His friend would soon be leaving for the army. Joseph would take his GoPro with him on the hikes. When he came home, he would show me some clips of the beautiful trails that they were hiking. He knew that I used to love to hike before I injured my knee.

It was getting late in the evening on July 23, 2022, and I was trying not to worry. At around 10:00 pm, two deputy sheriffs came to my house with the saddest news that any parent can ever hear. My son had tragically died in an accident. I almost fainted; I sat down in denial. I mentioned that his friend was also named Joseph. I asked, “Are you sure that it is my Joseph?” They nodded. Then, I was in shock.

I was told a ridiculous story about how Joseph had jumped from a twenty-foot ledge over a waterfall. His family and friends were immediately suspicious after that story. Later, they said that this account was confused with another weekend tragedy in the area. The next story that I got was that he had jumped from a smaller ledge near a waterfall. Eventually, I got a third account from the friend of my son who was there.

Joseph had worked for years at an Ingle’s grocery store, doing various jobs. He bonded with his co-workers and the customers. I cannot believe how many wonderful stories about my son that I heard from his co-workers at the store. His family were not the only ones who were broken from his tragic death. His Ingle’s family was also devastated by what had happened. Some had watched Joseph grow up, since I had shopped at the store for years. People cared about him because he was a kind person.

My son had aspired to go to college. However, he was interested in many things. I used to tell him that he would make a great history teacher. About a week before he died, Joseph had told me about a part of our nation’s early history that I had never learned about in school, the Beaver Wars. His aunt and uncle had offered to pay for his college education. But, Joseph was delaying about getting his high school equivalency because of his least favorite subject which was math. When he finally did take the test, he just had to review algebra for a few sessions, in order, to get his diploma.

 Joseph’s siblings and I were always amazed with his knowledge. From his early childhood, Joseph was teaching the rest of his family about dinosaurs and geological ages. Before he could read about them, he was watching documentaries. Joseph had learned to read at an adult level by a young age. We regularly went to the library during his home-school years. Besides dinosaurs, Joseph immersed himself in history, cultures, and languages. He was fascinated with early man, also. He and I used to hunt for artifacts together. One day, he called me out to the yard to demonstrate how much more powerful a spear could be thrown by using an atlatl. I think that he was fascinated with this ancient tool because of his Aztec roots. They were still using atlatls when Spanish colonizers arrived. 

As an adult, Joseph had a bookcase filled with books. Some were favorites from his childhood which I had read to him. Others were classics. He had also bought a beautiful Bible which he cherished. In addition to reading, he liked to draw, to carve wood, and to play the Native American flute. He also studied the genealogy of our family, and he connected to those who had lived before us. His own father had not been there throughout most of his life. So, he learned about his ancestors.

Joseph embraced his multicultural heritage. He had carved an atlatl with a mastodon on it, similar to some found in France. He wore a symbol around his neck which he had carved in honor of a great grandfather. He had been recruited from the Philippines by the Navy. Joseph was involved in Viking re-enactments, to identify with his Scandinavian heritage. He honored his Scottish ancestors at an annual parade in our town. I remember how happy he was when he found an English long bow. 

So, when Joseph decided to become a firefighter, it was not surprising. He knew that one of his great grandfathers had been a forest ranger in the area, who had fought wildfires. For some reason, this seemed exciting to him. Also, he had already put his life in danger one day when he and I witnessed a handicapped man, driving down the highway, with fire shooting out of his tire well. Another man had gotten the man to pull over. Joseph was getting his electric wheelchair off when the handicapped man was able to walk around the car. He seemed puzzled, as Joseph and the other man told him that his car was on fire. So, Joseph had the heart of a firefighter.

He began with a local volunteer fire department. After training for weeks, he was selected to become a firefighter. Joseph was so pleased with his accomplishment. I was proud of him. I believe that anyone who is willing to risk their life to save others is blessed by God to be that courageous. Joseph eagerly went out on the calls whenever he was not working at his main job. He continued to touch base with the town’s fire department, hoping to be hired on and to receive formal training. I was told that they planned to hire him at his funeral.

A few weeks after the funeral, I asked my older son to charge Joseph’s GoPro because I just had to know if there was any footage from that day on it. Joseph had set up the GoPro before he went for his swim. He and his friend were planning on coming back to the beautiful site the next week. Then, Joseph walked into the shallow water on a hot July day. He eased into a much deeper pool up to his shoulders. Just a little distance from him, much closer to the waterfall, another man was also taking a dip to cool off from the hot weather. However, he briefly submerged, and then got out of the cold water. The man briefly spoke to my son as he passed by him. After the man had walked beyond him, Joseph seemed uncomfortable. He started to walk or swim from the spot at which he had been standing. He was visibly in distress.

I have learned about Cold Shock since Joseph’s death. I really feel that this might be what happened to my son. According to the National Weather Service’s page on Cold Shock, it can occur within one to three minutes after immersion. This was at about the time that Joseph started to be in distress. I still hope to have the footage looked at by someone who would have the expertise to assess it. Although I was unable to verify this, I was told that other people had died at the same place. However, it is recommended as a place to swim by multiple travel advisors. Strong currents can also pose dangers to people who swim in rivers. Whatever caused my son’s death, he was not jumping or high diving into a waterfall. Also, he could swim. But, he was standing still for a couple of minutes from the time that he got into the cold water. Where he entered the water, it was not over his head.

The news of Joseph’s death had gone national because of the interviews which his chief did about the tragedy. PEOPLE Magazine and newspapers throughout the country picked up the story. The young firefighter was doing something that he loved. He was enjoying “the great outdoors.” Joseph did love the mountains of western North Carolina, his birthplace. However, Joseph’s family, friends, and co-workers were devastated. His aunts, uncles, and I got maybe three hours of sleep that night. I cried so much that my face was swollen. I realized that I had to be strong to honor my son. His father was lying in a nursing home in another state. All of his siblings took his death very hard, also. One of them remarked that Joseph had always thought of others before he thought of himself. Each exhibited their own forms of grieving. Joseph’s brother and youngest sister were angry. After her initial shock, his older sister planned a celebration of Joseph’s life. I could not attend. My heart was broken.

At least a couple of Joseph’s close friends, like me, could not eat for days. One of his friends confided in me that he kept expecting it to be Joseph when he got a text. He wanted that Filippino carving to wear around his neck. I found cherished items of Joseph’s to give to his close friends, who were struggling with his death. His closest friends knew that Joseph and I were close. We grieved together over our loss. The young man who was with Joseph when he drowned was definitely traumatized. One of Joseph’s supervisors didn’t think that he could come to the funeral. He did manage, and he was glad that he was there. We were strong that day to honor Joseph.

Joseph’s newer friends from the fire department were amazing in the way that they honored their fellow firefighter who had died so young. Many came to the visitation and many others to the funeral. Two firefighters thoughtfully eulogized him. Multiple fire departments, emergency workers, and law enforcement agencies provided Joseph with an impressive firefighter’s funeral and procession. Some firefighters traveled from an hour away to attend the funeral. Another told us that he had driven the antique fire engine which drove Joseph’s coffin to the cemetery. He said that he was honored to do this. Firefighters are wonderful people. They heroically risk their lives to save strangers. Although he had only been with the fire department for a few months, Joseph was honored for his service, too.

I am grateful for all of the people throughout our country who mourned the death of my son, firefighter Joseph Orr. He was a blessing to his family for twenty-five years. Joseph is missed everyday by those who were close to him. I appreciate those who prayed for us, as well. Only our faith in God has gotten us through this tragedy. I am also grateful for those who gave memorial gifts through the GoFundMe site.

A Message for Volunteer Firefighters and their families:

After the funeral, I was told that Joseph qualified for a fireman’s fund and that his application was sent. I was put off for months, being assured that it just took time. After seven months, I checked on the status myself only to find out that the claim was never received. When the claim had to be refiled, Joseph’s paperwork for his beneficiary information could not be found. Typically, life insurance is paid within two months. I was not aware that this “fund” was actually a group life insurance policy for all volunteer firefighters, until after I had checked on it.

When a death certificate and claim are sent out, a signature should be required, in order, to verify that they were received. Also, copies should be made of any important documents, such as, life insurance beneficiary information before the originals are mailed out with the claim. For the sake of your families, please make sure that your volunteer fire department has appropriate protocols to avoid these sorts of mishaps. These failures have delayed my efforts to pay off the rest of Joseph’s funeral bill and to get his gravestone.