Triple Drowning at a Leadership Retreat


The percent of drownings in natural water settings increases with age. Most drownings in those over 15 years of age occur in natural water settings.
As we all know, a drowning can occur nearly anywhere. Yet, the natural inclination is to believe that one will not happen in our own community, especially at our own YMCA. Awareness of the threat's reality is critical. Reinforcing proven prevention strategies is an essential element in protecting the kids in our programs. Both are the goals for our “Aquatic Alert” program.
Each alert is a brief treatment of the topic, focusing on a real, recent, public event, gleaned from the media… reprinting the published article in its entirety – omitting names – and providing a few important teaching points for you to share with your staff. As always, if you need additional guidance on this topic, please call us at 800-463-8546.

Absolutely heartbreaking: [High school] leadership retreat ends with drowning of three teens

Midwest –11/15/2008: The students had been on the paddle boats earlier in the week and wanted one last adventure before their leadership retreat ended.

So 16 of the 31 high-achieving students chosen from a West Side charter school to attend the campground retreat in [suburb] sneaked out of bed after 1 a.m. Friday to cross the [name] River, one of the students said.

But they didn't know the cork-size plugs under the boats had been removed to prepare the boats for winter, and the paddle boats began taking on water.

Soon, some of the [name] High School students were in the fast-moving, 42-degree water. Others jumped in to save their friends, but three students drowned – even though all three could swim.

[Victim 1], 18; [Victim 2], 17, and [Victim 3], 16, died, leaving their families heartbroken, their classmates stunned and their school crushed.

Student [name], 16, said he was with the group that went to the river after midnight. “It was the last day, so they wanted to do something,” he said.

Authorities said six of the camp's seven two-seat paddle boats were taken out, but [observer] only saw two in use. In one were [Victim 1] and [Victim 3], who missed the previous boat trip and wanted a chance to go out, [observer] said.

In another boat were [Victim 2] and two others, said [observer], who stayed on shore because he can't swim.

[Victim 2] was the first to fall in. [Victim 1] jumped in to try to pull him to safety. [Victim 3], who trained as a lifeguard, followed. The two teens on the boat with [victim 2] paddled to shore and alerted the others, [observer] said. “I went to go get help from the counselors,” [observer] said softly. “I can't believe it.”

[Victim 1]’s mother, [name], said the late-night outing was “kids being kids.” [Name] Fire Protection District Battalion Chief [name] called it “shenanigans.”

[School] Assistant Principal [name] called the victims “dynamic young men, which is why they were selected to participate in this program.”

It was an eight-day school trip to Camp [name], which is run by the YMCA [name]. “The focus of the retreat was ethical leadership, training our young men to be ethical leaders,” Principal [name] said

“They were the cream of the crop,” [victim 1]'s mother said.

The teens had been told to stay away from the water, and their teachers likely were asleep when they took the boats, [battalion chief] said.

Some family members have questioned why the boats weren't chained down.

[Observer] said the tight-knit group rode a bus back to [metropolis] in near-silence. “Everybody was quiet and crying,” he said.

When the students reached the [name] Church to be picked up by their parents, they gathered in a circle in the church sanctuary. Using a technique they learned on the retreat, they passed around a “talking stick,” and each student tearfully spoke about their lost friends, said [name], the church's associate pastor.

“They were speaking about the young men and about stepping up,” he said.

Crisis counselors were sent to the school, which dismissed students early Friday.

“This is absolutely heartbreaking,” said [metropolis] Public Schools spokesman [name].

Few answers in drownings probe

MIDWEST – 11/19/2008: As the families of three [metropolis] high school students firmed up funeral plans Tuesday, state and school officials continued to investigate why the teens drowned on a field trip along the [name] River. [Victim 2], 17; [victim 1], 18; and [victim 3], 16, drowned early Friday in the [name] River near the YMCA's Camp [name] after sneaking out of a lodge and dragging paddleboats to the fast-moving river. The boats had holes in the bottom where drainage plugs had been removed because the vessels had been set aside for winter.

The boats were donated about a month ago to the camp with the plugs removed, [emphasis added] said YMCA board member [name].

[State] Department of Natural Resources officials said they are re-interviewing teens from [school] and their chaperons this week.

[Name], a [metropolis] Public Schools spokesman, said that the district's investigation is ongoing.

[Name], who sits on [school]'s board of directors, said she believed there were enough chaperons to watch over the students. Officials have said there were nine chaperons assigned to 31 students.

[Victim 1]'s mother, [name], said district chief executive officer [name] visited the family Sunday, but that she is waiting for more information.

[School district spokesman] said the district, through one of its special funds, offered to help pay $1,500 toward each of the funerals.

Family members said they plan to accept the money. [Victim 3]'s funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in [name] Funeral Chapel, [address]. The funeral for [victim 2] will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in [name] Church, [address]. [Victim 1]'s funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at [name] Funeral Home, [address].

Family of drowning victim sues school, YMCA

MIDWEST – 11/20/2008:The mother of a [metropolis] teen who drowned at a leadership retreat last week has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the parties that sponsored the retreat.

The lawsuit filed by [name], mother of 17-year-old [Victim 2], seeks more than $50,000 from [school], YMCA [name] and [sponsor].

[Victim 2] drowned on Nov. 14 while trying to rescue two classmates from the [name] River near Camp [name]. [NB: the original article stated that victim 2 was the first to fall into the water and that the other two victims both entered the water to save him.]

The classmates, 18-year-old [victim 1] and 16-year-old [victim 3], drowned when they left their sleeping quarters and tried to ride paddle boats on the [name] River.

Unknown to them, the drain plugs had been removed from the boats, and when the boats sank, the boys were unable to stay afloat in the cold, fast-moving water.

The boys attended [school], a charter school on [metropolis]'s West Side. They were attending a leadership retreat chaperoned by the charter school and run by [sponsor] at Camp [name].

The YMCA has operated Camp [name] since 2005.

The lawsuit filed in [name] County circuit court alleges the defendants failed to secure the boats and did not provide enough chaperones for the retreat.

According to authorities, the leadership group had enough adults to supervise the 31 students on the retreat, and the teachers were not aware of the boys' plan to go out on the river.

[Name], executive director of YMCA [name], declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, saying he hasn't yet reviewed it. [Sponsor] and [metropolis] Public Schools could not be reached for comment after business hours Wednesday.

What published sources tell us:

  • A group of 16 students snuck out after lights out during a leadership retreat to cross the river. Unknown to the students, the paddle boats they used had been prepared for winter by removing the drain plugs, and tragedy struck when the boats began filling with water.
  • The chaperones were asleep when the teens snuck out of their quarters after 1 a.m. – they had been cautioned to stay away from the water.
  • The first article reported that the students had used the paddle boats earlier in the week and wanted to use them again – the second article states that the paddle boats had been donated to the camp about a month before without any plugs in the drains – one of the two articles is obviously incorrect. Perhaps the students used different boats on their earlier outing.
  • The water was quick moving and only 42 degrees F – two significant obstacles to getting out of the water safely

What published sources don’t tell us:

  • Who was responsible for supervising the students – it appears it was the school, not the YMCA
    • Were counselors / chaperones situated in the sleeping quarters with the students?
    • What time was lights out?
    • Were bed checks performed? If so, when was the last one?
    • Was there someone on duty during the night? If so, where was s/he located?
  • The safety precautions, if any, which were utilized during the authorized boating trip that would have demonstrated appropriate behavior…
    • Were lifeguards provided? What gear and/or precautions did they use?
    • Were personal flotation devices (PFDs) available or required?
    • What safety protocols were explained? Were the dangers of brown water, moving current, and/or hypothermia discussed?
    • What limitations were placed on use – i.e., were they allowed to cross the river or restricted to specific activities; were the number of individuals on a boat specified or restricted?
  • The effort required to access and launch the boats…
    • Was the waterfront/dock area secure? They reportedly had been told to stay away from the water – was there a sign or cable/gate blocking access?
    • Was there any illumination or did they do everything by ambient light? How much could they see?
    • If the paddleboats were donated to the YMCA without drains in them and thus were not what was used for their earlier water adventure, where were the boats that were used? Were they closer to the water than the paddle boats? Were they secured? How far removed from the water were the paddleboats?
    • Did they choose the paddle boats because they didn’t have access to paddles or oars to use with the boats that were use previously?
    • Were the paddleboats secured in any way or would the fact that the drains had been removed have been obvious if there was adequate light?
    • If PFDs had been used before, were they accessible now or were they in locked storage?
  • The timeframe…
    • How long were the boats in the water before it was realized that they were taking on water?
    • How long did the observer observe before seeking help?
    • How much time elapsed before help arrived?
  • Anything about an Emergency Action Plan (EAP)…
    • Was there one?
    • Was its implementation to be by the YMCA or by the school?
    • Where were emergency horns, rescue equipment, etc. located?
    • Was the EAP activated (assuming it existed)?
  • What the other students were doing? The article reported 16 kids snuck out, but only accounts for seven of them. Six of the seven boats were taken but apparently only two were used – did the other nine kids use the other four boats or not? If not, why? Were they still present at the river or were they elsewhere?

What should be considered:

  • Access to waterfronts and docks always should be controlled – there should be signs and preferably barriers to prevent access except when the area is supervised. That said, signs alone may be of little value in the dark.
  • Waterfront rules should be thoroughly explained to chaperones and participants of all groups – it is not enough to just lay down the law – it should be explained so that there is understanding and acceptance.
  • Equipment (especially any that is decommissioned for repair or storage) should be secured so it is inaccessible for unauthorized use. This practice is especially important for boats or other things that might be a temptation to youth. Best practices would secure such items from unauthorized use whenever they are not actively being used. This can be done by keeping them in a locked boathouse, keeping them in locked storage racks, chaining and locking them to a fixed object, etc.
  • Since cold water can quickly overcome even competent swimmers, especially when wearing restrictive clothing, extra precautions should be taken – signage, gates, securing devices, etc. should be provided. While a natural element like a river or lake may not be considered an attractive nuisance, any man-made access to it definitely is – falling temperatures may decrease the likelihood of incident but they increase the potential for disaster.
  • Participants, especially teens, like to make their experiences special – often this involves ditching their chaperones. YMCAs should implement the following procedures (which may or may not have been done in the above instance – the record is mute):
    • Rental group orientation should clearly establish the rules that they are expected to enforce.
    • The rental agreement should clearly delineate who is responsible for supervision of the children. If it is the rental group, they should be informed of the potential risks, of the importance of bed / room checks to confirm the location of all children, and of the wisdom of an on-duty person during the night in case of emergency or incident.

A YMCA cannot always control the actions of their guests or rental groups, but it does have to be aware that tragedy can strike at anytime. Protocols must be established and clearly communicated, potential for danger examined and properly controlled. Facilities should receive regular documented checks or inspections to identify potential hazards and prompt corrective action should be implemented to keep people from unsuspected harm.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at to learn more about YMCA risk management issues.


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