Jacksonville park memorializes Amari Harley, 3, who died in septic tank

The park on Arlington Road looks very different now, four years after 3-year-old Amari Harley fell into a septic tank and died.

There is a fence around the tank hatches, covered with steel plates with padlocks, where he fell in due to a faulty cover and drowned in the sewage.

Laughing children now play on new slides, child-friendly swings and other play equipment in the so-called Amari Harley playground and remember his death on October 22, 2017.

Standing next to the plaque with the smiling face of a son who would have turned 7 on February 20th, Jasmine Bates thanked everyone for the love and support they had given over the past three years. Like many at the Friday unveiling, she was wearing a Capt. America t-shirt because her son loved superheroes – the plaque thanked “Captain Amari, our hero forever!”

Councilor Joyce Morgan comforts Jasmine Bates (center), mother of Amari Harley, when they see the plaque honoring her 3-year-old son on Friday in Bruce Park, where he died in a septic tank.  The boy's father, Willie Harley, stands next to them with a picture of their son and a Captain America sign on his t-shirt.

“Our hearts will never be the same. We all know that. But we’re all here to celebrate his family life,” she said alongside husband Willie Harley. “I’m forever grateful for the work we see in the park today. Just bringing your brothers and sisters out to play is a bittersweet moment. But I’m just glad they have a safe place to come. ”

Nearby stood attorney Kay Harper Williams, who helped the family successfully sue the company that maintained the drainage system at the Bruce Park Baths. She said Amari’s loss is now a win for every child as new measures were put in place across the city after his death, including a parking security officer and a board of directors.

“Each of these kids are safer playing in these playgrounds and running through these parks because Amari lost,” said Harper Williams.

“Your baby is protecting the Jacksonville children and will be forever,” she said. “What a legacy.”

Amari was attending a birthday party in the crowded park with his family when he was missing, police said. After hours of searching, the police decided to empty the septic tank next to the bathroom in the park and found his body.

The septic tank in which 3-year-old Amari Harley drowned is now clearly secured next to the new playground in Bruce Park, which is named after him.

The tank lacked a child-resistant screw to secure the protective cap to its opening on the day Amari died. This was the result of an investigation by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. It remains unclear whether the septic tank lid was secured when it landed in it. The city processed a resident complaint in January 2017 about an “uncovered hole” in one of Bruce Park’s tanks, which was fixed the next day. A routine monthly inspection on February 13th revealed another problem that resulted in the lid being reattached.

The family eventually sued ERS Inc. (Environmental Remediation Services), the septic tank company that maintained the sewer systems in the park’s bathrooms. ERS’s negligence was described in the lawsuit. Responsibility has been assumed for the inspection, maintenance, and servicing of all wastewater treatment plants in public areas of the city, including those adjacent to the bathrooms in Bruce Park. The lawsuit also stated that the company should make the covers of sewage treatment plants tamper-proof and child-proof.

Following the tragedy, Mayor Lenny Curry ordered a security review in hundreds of city parks and called for the standardization of all septic tank covers in 76 parks with underground tanks. The cover of the tank in Bruce Park had been described as a heavy, rubbery material. Florida Department of Health regulations said it had to be vandal-proof, tamper-proof, and child-proof.

Willie Harley, Amari Harley's father, runs his fingers over the plaque commemorating his son shortly after its unveiling in Bruce Park on Friday afternoon.  The 3-year-old drowned in an unsecured septic tank on the park grounds in 2017.

Harper Williams didn’t want to say which settlement the family got in 2019.

“There is no money; there is no visible improvement for a park that is ever worth its life,” she said on Friday. “There is nothing we can do about this tragedy other than reacting to it in a way that we can make significant changes, and that is exactly what happened.”

The crowd “oohed” and applauded as the plaque was unveiled as emotion overwhelmed Amari’s mother. The board stands in the shade of a small oak tree, surrounded by a black metal fence next to a sign that says the playground is for 2- to 5-year-olds.

“Amari has always dreamed of becoming a superhero to protect and defend the innocent,” says the plaque. “… At the Amari Harley Playground, children can pretend to be superheroes, play with family and friends, have fun with sporting adventures and safely explore their surroundings.”

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549

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