A story about a Santa Claus holding a terminally ill 5-year-old child who died in his arms in a Tennessee hospital went viral recently, but so have questions about the tale's validity (video below).
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, a 60-year-old mechanical engineer who also plays Santa Claus, recalled his visit with the ill boy to the Knoxville News Sentinel Dec. 11:
He just kinda look at me and said, "You know, they tell me I'm dying." He looked like he had that look on his face like he wasn't really grasping it, you know? Can you do me a big favor? He said, "Sure!" When you get up there to them pearly gates, you just tell them you’re Santa’s Number One elf.
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"I am?" You sure are. I'm sure they'll let you right in. "They will?" I know it. He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug. He just kinda looked up at me and said: "Santa, can you help me?" And that's when he passed. I just felt him go limp. I didn't know he passed on me. I looked at him, and he was all sucked in.
Schmitt-Matzen refused to disclose the hospital or the boy's family out of respect for their privacy, but as the story went viral, questions were raised.
In response, the Knoxville News Sentinel stated Dec. 14 that it had looked into Schmitt-Matzen's story to verify it:
Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.
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Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.
Sharon Schmitt-Matzen, Santa's wife, verified the story to WBIR. Daniel Cunningham, a friend, also recalled when Schmitt-Matzen told him the sad story.
Schmitt-Matzen also showed the news station text messages that he sent to two different friends, which reportedly coincide with the story's mid-October date.
Ricky Joiner told The Washington Post that Schmitt-Matzen called him soon after the hospital incident, and Joiner told a couple who contacted the Knoxville News Sentinel.
"Southern people are pretty heartfelt people," Joiner said. "Not all the things you hear or see on the news is correct, but in this situation, I believe it to be true. Eric is not the type of person who would tell something like this if it wasn’t so."
Erica Estep, public-relations manager at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, told The Washington Post: "We know for certain that it did not happen at our hospital."
Jim Ragonese, a spokesperson for the University of Tennessee Medical Center, added: "I checked with the leaders in the particular intensive unit where we have children, and they confirmed that it did not happen at our facility."
Tennova Healthcare, a corporation that operates hospitals in the East Tennessee area, also denied the Santa story happened at any of their facilities.