I was recently asked by Pool & Spa News to start a blog to discuss pool operational, design, maintenance and risk management issues. As some of you may know, I have spent the past 40 years working in the field of aquatics and, since 1982, as an aquatic consultant. I have inspected more than a thousand pools, spas, fountains, waterparks, water rides and attractions; trained hundreds of pool operators; and have worked as an expert witness on more than 450 cases.
I hope that by sharing some of my experiences, readers can learn from the mistakes of others.
The first case involves a child drowning made all the more tragic by cloudy water.
Johnny (name changed to protect the innocent) attended a birthday/pool party at his classmate’s home in Beverly Hills, Calif. While all parents were invited to stay for the party, Johnny’s did not. They left a 7-year old nonswimmer at a stranger’s house, without asking somebody to watch him or even telling the homeowners that he could not swim.
The homeowners took reasonable steps to ensure the pool was safe for their guests. Most parents sat at tables on the deck, keeping an eye on their children and socializing. The birthday boy’s parents asked an older nephew and their housekeeper to be “water watchers.”
When Johnny’s parents arrived to pick him up, the child could not be located. The police conducted a thorough search and interviewed the homeowners and guests. A couple children said they had seen Johnny leave the party and walk to a nearby playground. Police dogs were taken to the park where they picked up Johnny’s scent. Of course, nobody knew he had gone to the park with his family before the party.
From that point, the police believed Johnny had wandered over to the park and been abducted. A search costing more than $500,000 took place over the next couple days and included an Amber Alert throughout California. Paulo’s parents appeared on media outlets pleading for the return of their son.
The day after the birthday party, the pool service tech arrived at the residence. He was told that a child had gone missing during a pool party and that he would have to come back later because the property was considered a crime scene. With the media and dozens of police officers present, the serviceman somehow snuck onto the property, observed the cloudy, milky condition of the water, and poured sodium hypochlorite directly in the pool while walking around the edge. He supposedly backwashed the filters.
Two days after Johnny’s disappearance, the houseman looked down into the now-clear pool and saw Johnny’s body at the bottom.
The boy had drowned at a pool party attended by all his school classmates and more than a dozen well-intentioned adults sitting poolside. Drowning can and does occur with others nearby. It is a silent death. There may have been witnesses to the drowning, but they did not recognize it. The adults were otherwise occupied, socializing, and temporarily distracted by birthday party activities.
Pool water quality and clarity had deteriorated gradually during the party. When water appears cloudy or milky, and a fine white precipitate settles out after peak use periods, the cause can be any of a dozen or so possibilities. In this instance it was likely the result of inadequately circulated and filtered water, unbalanced water, and inadequate sanitation/oxidation.
The tech had never informed the first-time pool that they would need to monitor and adjust the water chemistry as needed and circulate water during periods of heavy pool use. The pool did not meet minimum water quality standards, but he did not alert the owners or the police to this safety hazard.
As it turns out, the tech was not licensed to service pools in Los Angeles County, as required. He did not maintain written records of maintenance or water chemistry. He committed other infractions, such as collecting money for services not rendered and improperly transporting hazardous materials. Fearing he might be blamed for the incident, he fled the country.
But other factors contributed to the tragedy, or at least its prolongment. LAPD never conducted an underwater search. They did not drag the pool or place anything in the pool to help determine the level of water clarity, because they assumed Johnny had been abducted. When a child is missing from a property where there is a pool, the pool should always be physically searched. Simply looking at a pool from above can be deceiving. In this case, police officers said they searched the pool when they first arrived. An LAPD helicopter flew over it. A detective stood on the deck looking into the water for evidence and saw goggles on the bottom of the pool but did not see the body.
Is this an usual occurrence? Unfortunately, no. I’ve worked on a half dozen or so similar cases.
It raises several questions: What can we do to better educate pool owners and service technicians about improved monitoring of water chemistry and water quality? How can we alert first responders of the need to enter the pool and search the bottom when the missing person was last seen near the water, even if the water appears clear? And how can we teach parents and homeowners about the silent nature of drowning and the need to constantly watch their children – especially if they don’t know how to swim?