Three days after two young brothers nearly drowned in an abandoned pool on St. Paul's North End, city officials declared the pool a public nuisance and threatened its owner with a criminal citation if problems aren't resolved within a week.
Thursday's warning, spelled out in a letter to Samir Abumayyaleh, who owns the Princeton Place housing complex at 461 Maryland Av. E., requires him to repair a fence and gate "to prohibit entry" into the abandoned pool area, remove debris, clear drains and prevent the buildup of standing water.
On Monday, two brothers got past a locked fence and fell into the pool, filled with murky runoff water. St. Paul firefighters rescued the boys, ages 7 and 10, but the younger boy remains hospitalized in critical condition. Recent rains had filled the pool with about 6 feet of water on its deep end.
Abumayyaleh could not be reached Thursday to comment on city's warning. But he said earlier this week that he has been working on plans to turn the pool into a playground for kids, and fill it with dirt or gravel.
"But I want to do it right," he said at the time. "I don't want to do a sloppy job. I want to make sure we do it the right way."
The city's letter to Abumayyaleh was sent a day after it pledged to bridge a gap in swimming pool safety regulation discovered after the boys nearly drowned.
Ricardo Cervantes, the city's safety and inspections director, said Mayor Chris Coleman had directed his office to address complaints about abandoned or unused pools on private or public land despite the city's belief that state inspectors should be doing that.
"This situation clearly reveals a gap in who regulates unused pools," Cervantes said Wednesday in a letter to St. Paul City Council members. "In the absence of coverage from the state for unlicensed and unused pools, we will take action to clarify the city's role in picking up where the state leaves off in an ordinance change by the fall."
The state Health Department inspects and licenses pools for apartments, but it only took over those duties for St. Paul in July 2013, well after the Princeton Place pool had been abandoned and was no longer in use.
Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the department, said the state doesn't have jurisdiction over abandoned and unused pools.
"We would agree that there is clearly a gap in regulation and oversight of abandoned pools," he said Thursday. "What we need to focus on now is what can be done about it. We need to identify who is in the best position to address that. And right now, we don't clearly have the answer to those questions."
Boys in trouble
The 40-foot pool, built in 1971, 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 inspection photos show the chain locking the gate had fallen to the ground.
Residents said Monday's incident began when the younger boy, Sher Kpor, 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, Ma Kpaw, climbed over the fence after him. But he also got into trouble once he got into the water, said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.
The deep end of the pool, which drops to 9 feet, was filled with about 6 feet of filthy water.
The complex, made up of 33 apartments at Maryland Avenue E. and Arundel Street, according to city records, 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 earlier this week that the pool has "always been dirty" and 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.
Zaccard said that paramedics found the boys — both submerged — after bumping them with their feet while wading in the dark, debris-strewn water.
Residents of the apartment complex said they had warned children to stay clear of the deteriorated pool, which city records show has been an ongoing safety concern.
Abumayyaleh said he's owned the complex for only about 18 months. But as early as 2007, residents notified the city inspections office that the pool was full of stormwater.
"Tenants concerned for kids' safety," said one complaint, which also noted concerns about mice and cockroaches.
In a 2012 report, "complainant has seen kids climb over the fence to retrieve balls [they always seem to play close to pool] and feels this is a big hazard and accident waiting to happen."
In both of those incidents, inspectors wrote, problems were resolved. The pool was covered, fencing was of required height and the gate was locked. Closed-circuit surveillance cameras were in use after the 2012 incident, an inspector found.
In the letter to City Council members Wednesday, Cervantes wrote that the city will respond to any public complaints regarding unused or abandoned pools. Residents should call 651-266-8989 with any reports of a pool that could be a public nuisance or safety hazard, he said.
Schultz, meanwhile, said his department has spoken with Zaccard to offer any help in identifying abandoned or "bad" pools in the city.
"We recognize like everyone else the tragedy that happened, and we wish it could have been avoided," he said Thursday. "That gives everyone an incentive to take a pause and look and see if there is anything that could have been done to prevent something like this."