Eight lifeguards will be on duty Saturday at a popular Washington County swim pond where a St. Paul girl apparently drowned last weekend.
Stifling hot weather is expected to draw thousands to the manufactured pond at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, where 6-year-old Ghia Vue was found lifeless in shallow water.
“Definitely a tragic situation for everyone involved. Our thoughts are with the family, absolutely,” County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said Friday, a day before the heat index in the Twin Cities was expected to exceed 100 degrees.
But Sandberg also warned that too many people who come to the swim pond — one of the busiest outdoor swimming attractions in the metro area — mistakenly assume it’s the job of lifeguards to watch their children as they picnic, sunbathe and exercise.
“What we do know is that the child was unattended,” he said of Ghia, who was discovered underwater when a man wading with his granddaughter bumped into her.
“Whether we have lifeguards or not, tragedies can happen. We are there to maintain rules, maintain order, and watch out for people. This is not a day care.”
Parents must be in the water within arm’s reach of children 6 years and younger, Sandberg said. “I’m not talking about standing on the beach glancing out there,” he said. “I’m talking about actively engaging your child. You’re watching them, you’re not sleeping on a towel.”
When Ghia was found last Sunday afternoon, no lifeguards were on duty at the stations surrounding the swim pond. Two “beach monitors” — trained lifeguards wearing red and white — were working at the 2-acre pond.
Greg Zeits of Hudson, Wis., found the girl about 15 minutes after he arrived at the pond. A woman told him an obstruction was in the pond. He expected to find a beer bottle or tree branch, but instead pulled her body from the murky water.
“I picked her up in my arms and headed toward shore. I hollered for help and someone came running,” said Zeits, a retired Eau Claire, Wis., police officer.
Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said the Ramsey County medical examiner hadn’t yet determined how long Ghia was submerged before she was found, or whether the cause of death was drowning or a medical problem. The 911 call came about a half-hour after the girl’s mother said the family arrived at the pond, he said.
As many as 150 people were watching as several adults, including a cardiac nurse, surrounded the girl on the beach and tried to resuscitate her, said Laura Fenstermaker of Oakdale.
“They clearly did not want to give up on the child,” she said Friday. “You could see on their faces that it was pretty devastating and horrifying and everybody could feel the pain of the family. We were all just hoping and praying that the child was going to make it.”
At least four other drownings have occurred at the Lake Elmo swim pond since 1990 — a 7-year-old Woodbury boy; two 9-year-old girls, from St. Paul and Stillwater, and an 11-year-old North Branch boy. Several children were rescued but required hospitalization.
Competition for lifeguards
This weekend, lifeguards will staff stations from noon to 8 p.m., when the pond closes, but parents should know it will be unguarded from 9 a.m. to noon, Sandberg said.
Most county lifeguards are college students who aren’t available until the second weekend in June, Sandberg said. “The big thing for us is being able to hire enough lifeguards,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition out there for trained lifeguards.”
To prevent overcrowding this summer, overflow parking lots will be closed, limiting parking to paved lots surrounding the pond, he said.
Two years ago, Washington County engineers rebuilt the 30-year-old swim pond, eliminating barbecue grills and other nearby distractions to make the pond safer. The $1.3 million reconstruction reduced the pond’s maximum depth from 6 feet to 4 feet to lessen potential for drownings.
Keeping a close watch
The swim pond, with its 2 million gallons of chlorinated water and signature blue-and-white umbrellas, reopened to the public about a year ago.
Lake Elmo is the largest of Washington County’s parks and includes the city’s namesake lake. The swim pond draws about 10 times the number of people who visit the beach at another large county park, Big Marine in north Washington County.
Fenstermaker said children can disappear under water within seconds, but too many parents ignore the warnings for those 6 years and younger.
“A lot of parents do not abide by that rule,” she said. “I think lifeguards would have helped, but would a drowning have been prevented? I don’t know.”