As recently as three years ago, St. Paul officials cited the owner of the Princeton Place apartment complex for an unsecured fence and “stagnant water” at an abandoned pool out back.
Even though the fence was repaired and the pool drained, according to city officials, the deteriorating pool remained a source of concern to residents, who often warned kids to steer clear of it.
But two young brothers somehow got into the pool’s murky runoff water Monday afternoon, leaving one fighting for his life after the boys were rescued by firefighters blindly groping for their bodies.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether the North End pool had been inspected since being cited by the city in 2012. The state Health Department inspects and licenses pools for apartments, but it only took over those duties for St. Paul in July 2013.
Since that time, the Princeton Place pool has not been operating and would not have been subject to state inspections and licensing, department spokesman Doug Schultz said.
One of the boys, Sher Kpor, 7, remained Tuesday at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, hospital officials said. They didn’t release his condition, which was reported to be critical Monday night.
His brother, Ma Kpaw, 10, apparently was released from the hospital Tuesday.
St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said that officials were still trying to figure out Tuesday how or why the boys got into the pool, encircled by the apartment complex at Maryland Avenue E. and Arundel Street. The complex is largely populated with members of the Karen community, immigrants who fled religious and ethnic persecution in Myanmar.
Shat Paw, who has lived there nearly five years, said the pool has “always been dirty” and that residents told kids not to go near it.
At one time it was covered, she said, but the cover has been gone from the pool for about a year and a half.
The pool sits on a small rise and is surrounded by a chain-link fence about 5 feet high, which meets city code. However, the fence is not “obscuring,” as required by the city, and the gate doesn’t look to be self-closing and self-latching as mandated.
On Tuesday, the gate was secured by a chain and two padlocks. A deadbolt on the gate was broken.
Residents said that the incident began when the younger boy climbed the fence, or possibly crawled under one corner of it, either to retrieve a ball or take one from the pool.
When he began struggling for help, they said, the older brother went over the fence after him. But he also got into trouble once he got into the water, Zaccard said. The deep end of the pool, which drops from 3 to 9 feet, was filled with about 6 feet of filthy water.
Zaccard said that paramedics found the boys — both submerged — after bumping them with their feet while wading in the water.
Social workers visited with the brothers’ classmates Tuesday at Frost Lake Elementary School, Principal Stacey Kadrmas told parents. In a statement, Kadrmas said that though the boys had started at Frost Lake only this year, “we have gotten to know them well and we care about them immensely. Our hearts go out to the family and we are doing what we can to support them during this difficult time.”
Paw said the boys were at the apartment complex with their mother, who reportedly had put down some money on a unit they planned to move into soon.
After rescuing the boys, firefighters drained the pool, which Tuesday appeared littered with tree limbs, wood, an ironing board and a couple plastic kiddie cars, among other things.
The pool’s concrete surface was crumbling and tall weeds surrounded it, suggesting that it hadn’t been used for a long time.
The pool, while under the city’s jurisdiction for safety compliance, was cited in 2012 for failing to measure up.
At that time, the city received a complaint about the fence “not being secure and the presence of stagnant water,” said Ricardo Cervantes, St. Paul’s director of safety and inspections.
The complaint was investigated and a city inspector “verified the fence was repaired and the pool was drained,” Cervantes added. “There have not been any other complaints to this office regarding the pool.”
The apartment’s owner, Samir Abumayyaleh, 44, of Roseville, said Tuesday that he bought the property about a year and a half ago. At that time, he said, it was clear that the pool had long since been abandoned.
“It’s old and crumbling and it’s not a pool that’s very inviting,” he said. “It’s been abandoned for over 10 or 15 years. You can tell the cement is old. Very old.”
Abumayyaleh said he secured the area by keeping the gate locked at all times. “I never opened the lock,” he said. The pool, however, was not covered. Abumayyaleh said that he did not know that it had to be.
Abumayyaleh owns and manages Samir Properties, which advertises “Quality Affordable Housing” in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Fridley, Hilltop and Columbia Heights. Records show that he has purchased more than a dozen properties for more than $15 million since 2000.
He said Tuesday that he has recently been working on plans to turn the Princeton Place pool into a playground for kids.
“The intention was there and still is there,” he said. “Our plan is to basically get it covered. Fill it with dirt or gravel or whatever it needs. But I want to do it right. I don’t want to do a sloppy job. I want to make sure we do it the right way.”
It’s not known just how many abandoned in-ground pools may be in St. Paul, but Fire Chief Tim Butler said Tuesday that fire crews will drain any of them free of charge if they contain more than a foot of water.
“We want to prevent this tragedy from happening again,” Zaccard said.