Lilydale mudslide area closed

St. Paul has shut down part of Lilydale Regional Park and suspended fossil-hunting expeditions while it investigates what triggered Wednesday’s mudslide.

Lilydale Regional Park is off-limits to young fossil hunters while St. Paul officials investigate the landslide that buried four children on a class field trip, killing two of them.

A portion of the park that annually hosts more than 400 groups eager to search the steep bluffs for fossils was closed indefinitely Thursday, just hours after rescue workers recovered the body of 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana from the avalanche of mud, sand and rocks that buried the four students from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park on Wednesday afternoon.

Frantic emergency workers had used shovels, heavy equipment and bare hands to dig 9-year-old Haysem Sani’s body from the ground within hours of the slide.

Darkness and dangerous conditions, however, forced them to call off the search for Mohamed and return Thursday morning, when they found his body just 4 feet from where the other boy had died.

Two other fourth-grade students were rescued. One has been released from Regions Hospital; the other remains in serious condition.

Gov. Mark Dayton was scheduled to visit the school at 9:45 a.m. Friday and “address students, faculty, staff and community members about the tragedy,” school district spokeswoman Sara Thompson said in a statement.

St. Paul Parks and Recreation director Mike Hahm called the deaths “unprecedented.” City officials said they didn’t know of any recent landslides in the park, although gradual erosion is common. No significant injuries have been reported in the past five years.

“I’ve gone in the rain, the sunshine and the snow,” said Mayor Chris Coleman, who lives across from the park. “They are wonderful places for children to be able to explore. We had no reason to believe that anything of this nature would occur.”

On Thursday, however, Coleman and city officials said they had canceled permits for the next two weeks and would close off the fossil section of the park indefinitely until it was determined to be safe.

Osman Kamara, a friend of the Fofana family, questioned whether the action should have come sooner.

“There has been rain coming several days, so they could have talked before taking them down there,” Kamara said. “Something needs to be done.”

‘Outstanding students’

At a news briefing Thursday afternoon at Peter Hobart Elementary School, St. Louis Park superintendent Debra Bowers called this “an incredibly sad time.” Principal Shelley Nielsen said that for many students, this is the first time they’ve dealt with such a death.

Nielsen said the two boys who died were “outstanding students” who had a “love of life.” She said they loved learning and had “very engaged families.”

The brief news conference ended with school officials declining to answer questions about whether the trip should have proceeded after heavy rains that left the steep, erosion-prone bluffs saturated with water.

A city-commissioned report on the park released in 2009 listed evaluating erosion as a “high” priority for the city, but four years after its release the city hasn’t met that goal.

Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer said the city has completed half of the six high-priority items, but has not gotten to the erosion evaluation. “We’re making our way through those priorities,” he said.

The area of concerns cited in the 2009 report did not include the east clay pit, where the students were trapped Wednesday, Meyer said. He said the city will consider looking at erosion around all the clay pits.

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