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Mom seeks ‘something positive’ after son’s tragic fall

Jackilyn Kemmish’s son Jeffrey fell 48 feet from this retaining wall ledge eight years ago. Last month he took his own life after years of struggling from injuries sustained in the fall. (Colin Mulvany)
Jackilyn Kemmish’s son Jeffrey fell 48 feet from this retaining wall ledge eight years ago. Last month he took his own life after years of struggling from injuries sustained in the fall. (Colin Mulvany)

A 48-foot fall off a concrete retaining wall onto the unforgiving pavement below did not kill Jeffrey Kemmish.

His ensuing eight-year struggle with pain, disability, myriad medications, doctor visits, surgeries and rehabilitation eventually drove him to kill himself last month at the age of 24, according to family.

“He was of sound mind,” said his mom, Jackilyn Kemmish. “It was the pain that drove him to do what he did, to end his life.”

His mom wants to make sure no one else goes through what her son did. She believes better barriers should be installed along the wall, just south of the Y on North Division Street. The city, however, said it hasn’t received any complaints.

The impact of the March 2003 fall shattered Kemmish’s lower jaw into 100 pieces, knocked out several teeth, broke both his femurs, and shattered his left arm and his left foot. He lost a large amount of blood, fractured three ribs and suffered a collapsed lung. He spent nearly three weeks in a hospital, the first six days in the intensive care unit. He underwent 14 surgeries to piece his shattered body back together.

“He broke so many bones,” his mother said. “He was basically Humpty Dumpty.”

Jackilyn Kemmish said it was a miracle her son survived the fall. Doctors had said he probably wouldn’t walk again or be able to use his left hand.

Kemmish proved them wrong.

Eventually he could walk, but not run. His mother bought him a used drum set, and he spent time out in the garage, willing his hand to move despite the pain until he was able to use it again.

“He just took that left hand and, no matter how bad it hurt, he drummed and drummed and drummed,” she said. “And finally he could use his left hand again.

“He was determined. He was strong.”

Doctors tried everything they could to help him cope with the pain: muscle relaxers, painkillers, anti-depressants, chiropractic care and rehabilitation.

But the pain persisted. Nothing seemed to work.

At his wit’s end and facing more surgery, he decided to end the pain himself. Kemmish died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at Manito Park on Feb. 23.

His final message: “To my friends and family whom I’ve loved, today I end my pain. I fell eight years ago and have never stopped hurting. I’m sorry I’m weak, but a soldier knows his limits and I am at mine.”

Rumors had circulated that Kemmish was suicidal the night he fell, but he assured his mom that he was just taking a shortcut to his girlfriend’s house when he slipped and fell from the ledge. Kemmish had no history of mental health issues, his mom said.

“He was always a happy boy,” she said.

Jackilyn Kemmish heard that kids would play baseball in the adjacent empty lot and, while waiting for their turn to bat, they “walked the wall.”

She is concerned it is too easy to go around the fence and said better barriers should be installed to prevent them from doing so.

“I would make sure that outer ledge is completely inaccessible,” she said. “It looks enticing as a kid.”

Harlan Douglass owns the two pieces of property separated by the retaining wall: the Mayfair Apartments on the south and a 13-acre parcel of land to the north. The wall was constructed to level the empty lot to the north.

Douglass said the wall and fence fulfill the city’s requirements.

“It passed inspection,” he said of the wall.

City officials said they have not received any complaints about the wall. It underwent several inspections and got final approval from the Spokane Building Department in 1999, said Dan Skindzier, the Building Department’s inspector supervisor.

The Spokane Fire Department has had no calls to the area since at least 2003, which is as far back as they can check, said Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.

Ken Holeman’s apartment faces the wall. He said he has seen cats up on the ledge, but not children.

“I haven’t had any problem with the wall,” said Holeman, who has lived at the Mayfair Apartments for 14 years.

Douglass said he has no plans to develop the empty lot.

Jackilyn Kemmish sees a perfect use for it. Her son was passionate about animals, she said, so she wants to create a dog park as a memorial to him, either in the empty lot near the retaining wall or elsewhere in north Spokane.

“I would love to have something positive come from this tragedy.”