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Before 16-year-old Chiccena Carpenter drowned at Cedar Point Beach on Cedar Lake last Sunday, Minneapolis park officials had plans to add lifeguards at the unguarded beach. Their plans had been put on hold after the city's Park and Recreation Board didn't get enough applicants, an unprecedented situation.
While officials now say they are confident they will quickly fill the remaining slots, Carpenter's family is calling for further action, asking that lakes be closed if no lifeguard is on duty. Cedar Point Beach, where she drowned, is one of five in Minneapolis that has never been guarded, but starting Saturday, it will have a lifeguard.
Dawn Sommers, a park board spokeswoman, said lifeguard positions are usually filled by April.
Last year, the board hired 35 lifeguards and turned away 12 applicants. This year, as of Monday, only 21 lifeguards had been hired. By Friday afternoon, Sommers said, 13 applicants were going through the hiring process after an intensive recruiting campaign.
Sommers said officials aren't sure why they got so few applications this year, but speculate that it might be the pull of jobs at suburban beaches, or indoor pools that offer year-round jobs.
Minneapolis' pay of $9.03 to $11 an hour is "similar to some and less than others" in the metro area, she said. "Certainly we're looking to change these numbers," she said. "We don't want to go another year where we don't have guards."
On the surface, there doesn't appear to be a lack of people interested in becoming a lifeguard. The American Red Cross, which conducts lifeguard training, has had relatively steady numbers, Red Cross officials said.
Pleas for extra caution
Chiccena Carpenter's family said it was unusual for her to go to a lake. After the near-drowning of her older sister around 10 years ago at an unguarded lake, her family was more likely to go to swimming pools or better guarded waters.
Yet last Sunday, Carpenter, who had attended Edison High School until earlier this year, went to Cedar Lake when a friend persuaded her and her cousin to go, unbeknown to her family, said her aunt, Nichole Page.
Carpenter and her cousin were on their way to shore from a floating dock when she went underwater. Her cousin called out for help and had to swim to shore before she could get someone's attention, Page said.
Beachgoers formed a chain and waded into the water in search of Carpenter, but had to stop when it got too deep. She was missing for about half an hour until search crews finally found her in about 10 feet of water. She was hospitalized overnight but died Monday.
Now Carpenter's family wants to push for legislation in her name to make sure beaches in Minnesota don't stay open without a lifeguard present, Page said.
Currently, two of Minneapolis' 12 beaches are guarded daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Others that have lifeguards are guarded only Thursday through Sunday at the same hours. Of Cedar Lake's two other beaches, East Cedar Beach has daily lifeguards and Cedar South is not guarded, Sommers said.
Sommers declined to comment on the Carpenter family's concerns, saying only that almost all of the city's lakes have multiple beaches and that the board's goal is to guard each lake's most heavily used beach during peak hours.
Bob Fine, a Park Board commissioner at large, said he would like to see beaches have lifeguards daily, but doesn't have control over it. In the past few years, budget constraints have prevented that, but Sommers said the board has expanded the lifeguard budget to accommodate the planned additional hires.
Fine, who worked as a lifeguard in college, said he doesn't think closing beaches when there are no lifeguards is possible. There were never lifeguards all day, even when he was one, he said. "We would just plain have to close the beaches," he said.
In St. Paul, however, Lake Phalen's beach, which is open from noon to 7 p.m., is closed when lifeguards aren't on duty. "Our beach has always been guarded," said Brad Meyer, St. Paul's Park and Recreation spokesman. "You can't swim in a beach that's unguarded."
While always having guards present is ideal, parents need to keep a close eye on their children, Fine said. "Usually, drownings are not caused because there was not a lifeguard ... and the lifeguards can't see everything," he said.
Carpenter's family also pleaded for people to be extra careful at unguarded beaches. Carpenter, who loved to write poetry and draw, had a strong love for children and wouldn't want anything to happen to others, Page said.
Carpenter's funeral will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at True Vine Missionary Church, 2639 Thomas Av. N., Minneapolis.
Masako Hirsch • 612-673-4263