ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – Only one lifeguard was working the day 6-year-old T.J. Mister drowned at St. Louis County’s Kennedy Recreation Center.
T.J. was starting his third day of summer camp, swimming in an Olympic-sized pool we now know was supposed to be closed for the summer.
Doug Forbes found out while make a Missouri Sunshine Law request for St. Louis County emails.
Forbes has been on a mission to get to the bottom of child drownings after his 6-year-old daughter, Roxie, drowned at a summer camp in California.
Emails Forbes obtained reveal the woman in charge of the rec center, Erica Bockhoff, repeatedly raised warnings, like in an April 18 email, in which she wrote, “I’m concerned of safety issues rushing them through training and immediately putting them on the stand.”
She noted high schoolers still in classes, who were unable to train and that they were short training supplies.
A June 1 email from another county employee said, “…our pool will not be opening this season…”
That’s when District 6 Councilman Ernie Trakas got involved. Trakas said his constituents were complaining, and Parks Director Tom Ott responded June 1, “We only have four lifeguards to work at the Kennedy pool – that has not changed.” He added, “We will continue to advertise, but we are not getting any new applications.”
Trakas answered: “Let me make myself perfectly clear. I expect the Kennedy Pool to be open by the end of June, at the latest. I don’t care if that means you have to offer higher compensation, better hours, or other incentives to retain the necessary personnel.”
FOX 2 contacted Trakas to ask about his email after Tuesday’s council meeting.
“All my intent was, is to make sure Mr. Ott, director of parks, understood that the expectation was he would use all the same time attention and energy to make sure that appropriate staff was to be hired for the Kennedy Rec Center pool,” he said. “My email says specifically, ‘necessary personnel.’”
The rec center reported no staffing improvement, but it opened the pool nonetheless.
On July 20, about eight weeks after Trakas’ email, a lifeguard called in sick. The pool opened anyway, with just one lifeguard. The rec center facility handbook says “a minimum of two guards is necessary to open the pool at any time.” That policy was ignored. T.J. Mister drowned.
T.J.’s parents, Olga and Travone, spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“We have to prevent this from happening again,” Olga said.
Councilman Trakas sought out the Misters after the meeting.
“I think they heard us. I don’t think it’s going to be a change tomorrow,” Olga said. “I think it’s going to take time, but I think they heard me and they understand… We’re not going away.”