Pregnant D.C. woman drowns off North Carolina coast

July 27, 2012

Jill Bailey Chenet took note of small moments.

“One human life is no more than a tiny blip. Why waste it being unhappy?” she asked on her Facebook page earlier this summer. “Far better, surely, to use our short time here living a meaningful life.”

Chenet, a second-grade teacher of hearing-impaired children in the District, lived up to those words, friends and family said, until her death Wednesday while swimming near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in the Outer Banks.

Chenet, 31, was five months pregnant with her first child when she drowned. The unborn baby, a girl, also died. Her husband, Matt Chenet, 37, nearly drowned trying to save them. He was released from a Norfolk hospital Friday.

The Chenets, who lived in Glover Park, were at the end of a 10-day vacation. They waded into shallow water about 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, when there was no lifeguard on duty, National Park Service spokeswoman Cyndy Holda said. Family members said the couple were caught in a rip current. Matt Chenet struggled for 30 minutes in the water, trying to keep his wife’s head above water.

Rescue workers responding to a 911 call found the pair floating about 20 yards from the beach and took them to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where Jill Chenet and her baby were declared dead. Matt Chenet was initially listed in serious condition. After his release Friday, he was expected to travel to Salem, Va., where his wife’s family lives, friends said.

Jill Chenet was born and raised in Salem, a small city next to Roanoke. She was the youngest of three children and grew up surrounded by a large extended family that included more than a dozen first cousins. Those closest to her called her “Tootie,” a nickname given to her by her grandfather, said Kelly Farber, a cousin.

After graduating from Washington and Lee University in 2003, Chenet worked as a teaching assistant and eventually enrolled at the University of Virginia to earn a master’s degree in education as a reading specialist.

She met her future husband, an independent television producer who has done work for Discovery Networks and the National Geographic Channel, while visiting friends in Washington.

When it came time for them to marry, Farber suggested that Chenet have her sister as maid of honor and forgo bridesmaids so Chenet would not be forced to choose among her many cousins and friends. Chenet ended up with 12 bridesmaids.

She had started working at the River School in Palisades a couple of years earlier. The school prepares hearing-impaired children for mainstream classrooms.

School officials declined to comment yesterday. In a note posted on the school’s Web site, school officials wrote: “Words cannot fully express our grief. Jill dedicated her career to her students, bringing them to their fullest potential with joy and a sense of wonder that was palpable in her classroom daily.”

Chenet’s enthusiasm for teaching — and her ability to laugh at herself — came through in a piece she wrote that was posted in March on Washington and Lee’s Web site. She described how, as a new teacher, she froze as she watched a cochlear implant go sailing off a young girl’s head and land on a busy playground right after Chenet had given her an extra hard push on a swing.

Upon seeing the reaction, the girl doubled over with laughter and told the rookie teacher not to worry. “You’ll catch on soon,” the girl said. The episode, Chenet wrote, taught her “how to cut myself some slack.”

“She had so much patience. You just knew how much she cared about everybody by the way she talked to them,” said Jenifer Carlin Rohrberger, a fellow teacher. “She was meant to do this job. She was just meant to be with kids.”

Chenet was also thrilled that she was soon going to be a mother. “It was all that she could talk about,” Rohrberger said. “She couldn't stop touching her belly.”

The Chenets had chosen Olive as their baby’s name.

The Bailey family had spent the past few weeks planning Chenet’s baby shower. The invitations have already gone out, and presents have started to arrive, Farber said.

“She would’ve been a great mom,” Farber said.

A service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of Nazareth Church in Roanoke.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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