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Messages of condolence are written next to a school portrait of Jumai Caldwell, at a shrine to his memory outside his apartment in Alameda, Calif., Wednesday, May 29, 2013. The 12-year-old drowned this past weekend in a canal in Antioch, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

ALAMEDA -- Tisha Caldwell heard the sirens drawing closer as she sat visiting family in Antioch and instinctively knew something must have happened to her 12-year-old son, Jumai.

"My first thought was his asthma," Caldwell said. "I thought that maybe he could not breathe and had forgotten his inhaler. The ambulance and fire trucks were coming for my son, but it wasn't his asthma. When they found him, his inhaler was in his pocket."

Jumai was searching for lizards and tossing rocks with two other boys near the edge of the Antioch water canal about 2:45 p.m. Saturday when his flip-flop slipped off and fell into the water.

Jumai drowned after he fell into the canal, trying to retrieve it.

His cousin, Tahir Farrell, 10, jumped into the water to try and save the sixth-grader, who lived in Alameda with his mother and twin brother, Quina.

"He shouted to Tahir, 'I can't swim,'" Caldwell said. "The current was pulling my son away. Tahir was able to grab onto something and pull himself up and run for help."

Jumai's body was found about a quarter-mile down the waterway from where he fell in, about a half-mile up from where the canal crosses under Hillcrest Avenue. The water district canal has at least two feet of dark water in it, making it difficult to search, according to Capt. Robert Marshall of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District. Marshall told the Associated Press that Caldwell had climbed a six-foot-high fence that runs the length of the canal.

"I am heartbroken," Caldwell said Wednesday as friends and neighbors comforted her inside her apartment. "I am so heartbroken. He was my son's other half, and he was my rock."

In the carport of her apartment building, neighbors have created a makeshift memorial for Jumai with candles and stuffed animals. Some have written tributes to the boy on the carport's walls.

"He was a very curious person and very adventurous," said Satara Harris, 12, who attended Alameda's Wood Middle School with Jumai, as she visited the memorial. "He put others before himself."

Harris and the other students learned what happened to Jumai when they returned to school after the Memorial Day weekend and heard an announcement over the public address system. Grief counselors have met some children.

"In the morning, some of the kids were upset and crying," 12-year-old Austin Vogel said as he joined Harris outside Jumai's apartment.

Jumai was nearly always with his fraternal twin brother, Quina, said Evelyn Woods, the school's office manager. Sometimes the boys would pretend to be each other, Woods said.

"You would have to tell them not to do that," she said. "They were playful and outgoing. But they could also be serious."

Woods said she gave the boys an alarm clock to help them get to school on time.

Jumai's drowning was the second death in one week in the Contra Costa Canal, the waterway run by the Contra Costa Water District.

On May 20, 48-year-old Brentwood resident Saul Hernandez, who was a patient at Sutter Delta Medical Center, left the hospital's emergency room and entered the water. His body was found two days later.

The water in the canal where Jumai fell was between 8 and 10 feet deep, and the current could run between 9 and 12 miles per hour, according to the water district. The canal dips to about 10 feet wide at the bottom, down from 18 feet wide at the canal's top.

Jumai attended Ruby Bridges Elementary School before moving onto Wood school. He loved sports, especially basketball, his mother said.

Caldwell said she learned after her son's death that Jumai had been recently helping students with their studies at Ruby Bridges on Wednesday afternoons, when Wood lets out early.

Caldwell thought Jumai and his brother were up to mischief because they were coming home late.

"He never told me," Caldwell said. "I would fuss at him. 'Why are you so late?' He never told me. But that's what he was doing. He was helping people."

Staff Writer Erin Ivie contributued to this report. Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

Memorial
The funeral for Jumai Caldwell will take place at 11 a.m. June 10 at Higgins Chapel, 1310 A St., Antioch.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to his family can call Shelly Caldwell at 510-706-6034. Deposits can be made at Bank of America c/o Jumai Mali Aazam Caldwell, account 325021512443, routing number 121000358.