SEAFORD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Grief counselors were on hand at a Long Island school Thursday after a sophomore died after falling ill during a class trip to California.
Joseph Tutaj traveled to Los Angeles last week with the Seaford High School marching band to perform at Disneyland.
Students and teachers at Seaford High choked back tears amid the tragic news.
“Everybody just hysterical. It’s a terrible feeling. He was a great friend to everyone in the school,” friend and classmate Brandon D’Allegro told CBS 2’s Jennifer McLogan.
Fellow band member and friend Michael Nicola said the 15-year-old didn’t seem to be feeling well right from the start.
“Our first day in Disneyland he was feeling okay. He went on Space Mountain with us and then the second day he wasn’t feeling good at all,” Nicola said. “He just digressed every single day.”
On Tuesday — the sixth day of the trip — Tutaj was so sick he had to be rushed from a lunch on the Santa Monica Pier to the hospital by ambulance, CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown reported.
“He could not breathe at all,” Nicola said. “I saw him sitting there. He was just so out of it, he didn’t look like his normal self.”
Tutaj died less than 24 hours later.
Joseph’s mother, Eileen, who is a physican’s assistant, immediately flew to Los Angeles, but it was too late.
“He was seen twice by doctors in the hospital while he was out there. They released him, they said he was fine,” family friend Pat Sirota said. “Yet, less than 24 hours after he was released, he collapsed, so obviously they missed something.”
Family and friends are grief-stricken and grappling for answers.
“There was no bad bone in his body. All he did was want to make people smile,” friend Brandon D’Allegro said. “I’ve never met a more generous kid in my life.”
“It’s just so overwhelming and so overbearing, you just can’t take it. It’s really hard,” friend Jessica Brock said.
Students on the trip said Tutaj was running an extremely high fever, but it’s still unclear exactly what caused his death. The school said in a statement that hospital officials confirmed the illness was not contagious.
Friends and family said he had no known medical problems.
Seaford Superintendent Brian Conboy called Joseph “a person of high character who was an involved and respected student.”
Tutaj was a rising star in the school band, playing both the trumpet and the French horn. He also had participated in Model Congress, the Boy Scouts and math competitions.
“The Seaford community is heartbroken today,” Conboy added. “We are a tight community. Our hearts and our support are with the Tutaj family as they deal with this incredibly unfortunate tragedy.”
The tragedy is just the latest in a series of hard times for Tutaj’s family.
His father is battling stage four cancer; the family also lost their home in Superstorm Sandy and have been living temporarily in Bethpage.
“I’m on Social Security disability, my wife is working double time to support this house that we’re renting and [paying] our house’s mortgage in Seaford, which is uninhabitable still from the storm,” the teen’s father, Robert Tutaj, told 1010 WINS reporter Mona Rivera.
Tutaj’s mother was in Los Angeles, preparing to bring her son’s body home. A fund will be set up to help the family.
“A bunch of the friends of the family are getting together to set up a fund to help the family bury Joe because they don’t have the money at this point to do that,” Sirota said.
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