St. Paul park mudslide turns school trip into deadly nightmare

A saturated slope in Lilydale Regional Park collapsed, killing one fourth-grader and leaving another buried.

St. Paul authorities said Thursday morning that they would resume their search for a 4th grader missing after a mudslide during a school trip at a St. Paul park.

The search should begin sometime between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., said Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. ORIGINAL STORY IS BELOW.

An elementary school field trip in St. Paul turned deadly Wednesday when the earth gave way on a Mississippi River bluff, killing one child and leaving another buried beneath the fallen hillside.

Confronted by darkness and dangerous conditions, authorities called off the search shortly after 10 p.m., when a search dog returned from the slope without finding a scent of the buried child.

The family of the missing student stood vigil Wednesday night, hoping for news about the missing 10-year-old, said a man who said he was the boy’s uncle. The fourth-grader “liked geology,” he said.

Authorities plan to meet at 7 a.m. Thursday to continue the search.

“These rescuers are, what I consider, devastated,” said Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. “They were in grave danger of the collapse continuing on them,” he said.

Two other children from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park were injured in the landslide deep within Lilydale Regional Park, a popular destination for school students searching for fossils.

The steep slope had been saturated with rain in recent days. The city requires permits for using the area and warns that it can be hazardous. City officials said Wednesday they would review the afternoon accident and consider possible changes.

“We want to make sure that things are safe,” said Brad Meyer, a spokesman for the city Department of Parks and Recreation.

The students were among almost 50 students in two fourth-grade classes from Hobart who were hiking in the park when a wet hillside of mud, sand and gravel gave way about 1:15 p.m., sending the children tumbling about 30 feet, Zaccard said.

Rescuers struggled to reach the slide area, about a quarter mile from a road. But once there, rescuers worked in waist-deep mud, using their bare hands and shovels to dig the students out.

“We have one that’s half exposed, another one that’s totally buried,” one emergency worker reported in police scanner audio posted at Minnesota Police Clips. “We have quite a few yards of sand on top of one of them. One of the kids was digging him out.”

Authorities on the scene quickly put out a call for more shovels and requested a trench-rescue rig.

‘We’re all digging right now’

“We’re all digging right now,” an emergency worker said over the scanner. “All we need is shovels. … We’re hand digging right now.”

Zaccard said it took crews 45 minutes to rescue one child, who was buried waist-deep, and another hour for them to recover the body of the dead child. A third child suffered an ankle injury.

The rescued children were taken to Regions Hospital.

Two firefighters were injured in the rescue operation.

Excavations proceeded cautiously through the afternoon for fear that “more of the hill would collapse,” according to scanner traffic. Eventually, rescuers used a fire hose to knock away loose dirt in hopes of uncovering the missing student.

“This is tough on the rescuers,” Zaccard said. “It’s children, young children here to have a good time.”

Late in the afternoon, a school bus with the uninjured students and staff arrived back in St. Louis Park, where children where reunited with their parents inside the school.

About 10 minutes later, they emerged crying and hugging.

Nine-year-old Connor Coleman was with his classmates in the park when he heard a loud boom, said his mother, Michelle Coleman. “He said it sounded like a cannon,” she said. “When he looked over, he saw a tree was falling down the cliff … and he could hear his classmates in the lower area yelling and screaming.”

“My son is very sad to know that two classmates have more than [likely not] survived this horrible accident,” Coleman said. “That’s a lot for a 9-year-old to go through.”

The field trip Wednesday involved two fourth-grade classes, 49 students total, said Sara Thompson, St. Louis Park School District spokeswoman. Concerns about whether conditions on the bluffs were too dangerous for the children “is the least of [the] concerns,” said Andraya Thompson, president of the Hobart PTAO.

“The families are concerned about the situation as it develops and how they can be supportive,” she said.

Michelle Coleman said: “I trust wholeheartedly Peter Hobart Elementary School and the teachers there. We know they wouldn’t knowingly put our children in danger.”

Classes will resume at the school Thursday with counselors on hand for students and staff.

Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer said the St. Louis Park school had a permit to dig for fossils.

“It’s a popular elementary school group destination,” he said.

The permit website warns applicants that the area can be hazardous, and requires them to accept liability for injury. Meyer said he wasn’t aware of any major problems at the park in recent years.

“As for weather closures for our parks, it’s few and far between,” he said. “In this case, there’s no preparation.”

Lifelong West Side resident Angeleah Carrion said she regularly walks the trails at Lilydale, but avoids it in wet weather because of the narrow, dirt trails and steep cliffs.

“I wouldn’t even go near it on a day like today,” said Carrion.

A number of neighbors shared Carrion’s concerns.

“It’s really scary even when it’s dry,” Lydia Grainger said. “My dad never liked this place.”

Minnesota’s spring has been wetter than the average this year. “Since March 1, we’re up 4.85 inches from rain and snow,” said meteorologist Paul Douglas. “The soil is very saturated in the Twin Cities.” The Twin Cities has received more than 3.5 inches of rain that has fallen every day since Friday.

 

Staff writers Kelly Smith, Joy Powell and Chao Xiong contributed to this report. nicole.norfleet@startribune.com 612-673-4495 mlsmith@startribune.com 612-673-4788







 

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