Tragic drowning at Pinehurst swimming pond still unexplainedUpdate: While the full autopsy report is not complete, Dr. Ricard Puumala, Carlton County coroner, confirmed Friday the cause of death was drowning.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Until the lifeguards started shouting at people to clear the pond, 11-year-old Sam Godbout said last Thursday seemed like any other day at The Beach. She and two other friends were having a splash fight when everyone had to clear Cloquet’s sand-bottomed pond.
At first, Godbout and her friends thought it was a practice emergency. They could see the lifeguards working on someone, but thought it was a training drill. Then they heard the
“That’s when we knew it was real,” Godbout said.
Wyatt A. Hanna reportedly had been at the Pinehurst Park pond on a field trip with Duluth Schools’ Kid Connection program, along with 32 other children and four chaperones. He had a faint pulse when he was found in the water by lifeguards shortly before 1:30 p.m. The lifeguards took the boy out of the water on a backboard and were performing CPR when emergency personnel arrived. They transported Hanna to Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet, where he later died.
While the full autopsy report is not complete, Dr. Ricard Puumala, Carlton County coroner, said Friday the cause of death was drowning. Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said there was no evidence of foul play.
“We responded and took statements from everyone involved,” Lamirande said. “While we’re still waiting for the autopsy report, this was – from all accounts – an accident, a tragic accident.”
Hanna was found by lifeguards in about three feet of water, somewhere between the small slides set up for younger children and the city band shell, at the opposite end from the deepest part of the pool. In contradiction to earlier media reports, he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. There was also no immediate evidence of any obvious trauma, like a head injury, Lamirande said when he noted no evidence of foul play.
No one knows what happened. There are no video cameras at the facility and no one has come forward yet with any kind of explanation. Six lifeguards were on duty, with four on the deck – usually there are two in chairs and two standing – when the accident occurred Thursday.
It was the first drowning at the swimming pond since it opened in 1977.
“This was a tragic accident that as a parent touches me deeply,” City Administrator Brian Fritsinger said last Thursday. “On behalf of the city and our staff, our hearts and prayers go out to the family during this very difficult time.”
Fritsinger said it’s his understanding that the lifeguards followed procedures properly when they found the boy in the water.
“Paramedics said they were ‘text book’ when it came to handling the situation,” he said.
Cloquet Schools Superintendent Ken Scarbrough also praised the quick response and professionalism of the staff at The Beach, as well as the Cloquet police and Cloquet Area Fire District emergency medical personnel.
He also expressed sympathy for Hanna’s family and friends.
“Our entire staff and school district just feel extreme compassion and concern for his family,” said Scarbrough, adding that his wife teaches first grade, the same age group.
The Beach was closed immediately following the drowning and has remained closed ever since. Memorial services for Hanna were Wednesday, the day the swimming facility was originally scheduled to reopen.
“When we first said it would be Wednesday, we didn’t realize that was the day of his services,” Fritsinger said, explaining that officials revised the reopening date to Friday out of respect for Hanna’s family. A memorial fund for Wyatt Hanna has been set up at Superior Choice Credit Union, for those who would like to donate.
In the days since the drowning, Fritsinger said the city and Cloquet Community Education have brought in counselors from the school district to meet with Beach staff. Lifeguards also participated in discussions with the Critical Incident team, counselors who work with area law enforcement and emergency services.
“Our lifeguards are trained and certified to do what they do,” Fritsinger said. “At the same time, they’re also young adults in a very difficult situation. The important part for all of them was making sure they are able to come back and do their job. … For us to step back and take the time to work with them and review policy was critical for that future operation. That’s taken some time.”
Scarbrough said staff at the
swimming facility had held an emergency drill just the day before the accident.
“They practiced what to do, procedure … It’s all a part of the training and the level of care we expect from our staff,” he said.
Dave Johnson was on the Cloquet City Council when the swimming pond at Pinehurst was approved in the 1970s and he’s been a part of various committees and neighborhood groups that support the facility.
He was relieved to hear that The Beach would reopen soon, and perturbed that it had been closed so long.
“It’s tragic, but an accident is an accident,” said Johnson, whose home overlooks the park. “They don’t close down the interstate when there’s a tragic accident. Spirit Mountain has had several deaths – three that I know of – but they don’t close the ski hills down and re-educate everyone.”
The fact that the water in the pond is “murky” – not clear like a concrete pool would be – has always been an issue at the facility, Johnson said.
Fritsinger said the sand at The Beach was triple washed before it was brought in, and that there is no white “sugar sand” like the sand at Park Point available in this region.
There are approximately 10-12 similar swimming ponds currently operating across the state. The city closed the pond several years ago and completed a major renovation and modernization of the pond in 2009 with it re-opening in July of that same year.
“Clearly, when the city worked through the process [several years ago] there was a lot of discussion of pond versus pool,” Fritsinger said, noting that the city operated something very similar to what’s there now for 30 years with a minimal incident. “It’s not an overly deep facility. Keeping the experience similar to a lake is what people wanted.”
Close to 250 people were at The Beach Thursday. The facility was designed to hold 500 to 600 people. When the swimming pond first opened in 1977, Johnson said there were times that more than 1,000 went swimming over the course of a day. The most people to go through the gates in a day so far this year was 641, on July 1.
Godbout said, if anything, there were fewer than usual people at the pool Thursday, the first cooler day after a streak of warm days.
Lisa Baumann of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.