Witnesses say circumstances, response to child's drowning questionable at Buffalo River State Park
GLYNDON, MINN.—A woman who was at a popular swimming hole near here when a child drowned said she thinks there weren't enough chaperones for the large youth group in attendance and that some weren't watching the kids.
Another witness said she doesn't think searchers went into the water quickly enough after the girl was believed missing.
The Clay County Sheriff's Office said Grace Elizabeth Bettie, 9, of Moorhead, died Wednesday, June 27, at Buffalo River State Park.
She was pulled unresponsive from the water just after 4 p.m. and lifesaving efforts at the scene were not successful.
It is the fourth drowning in the swimming hole since 1996, according to Forum archives. Two near drownings also occurred there during that period.
The city of Moorhead said in a statement that the girl was participating in the Moorhead Police Summer Youth Program at the time, and was a student at Ellen Hopkins Elementary.
Jeanne Broadbent of Fargo is a frequent visitor to the park and spent the entire afternoon there Wednesday with her spouse and daughter.
When kids from the youth group began spreading out on the beach, her sense of awareness heightened.
"I noticed that the park rangers had also become on high alert. I sensed a lot of tension and stress coming from them and the lifeguards," Broadbent said.
She said the ratio of kids to chaperones seemed high, and she noticed some chaperones, all wearing purple shirts bearing the group name, stayed back on the grass or at picnic tables, some distance from the water.
Several Moorhead police officers were also in attendance as part of the program, she said.
Broadbent, who works with children at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, said she began taking photos and video of the situation.
"I felt like an accident was waiting to happen and then it did," she said, her voice breaking.
Activities included water safety
The Moorhead Police Summer Youth Program has operated since 1980, in an effort to get police and youth together in a positive non-threatening atmosphere, according to its website.
It accepts 200 Moorhead children between ages 8-12 each year, for educational programs and a recreational activity once a week, free of charge.
Money to fund it comes from a grant from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs.
On the day of the accident, youth group participants could swim and do crafts, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was providing a presentation on water, boat and ATV safety, according to the online schedule.
There were three lifeguards and three park rangers on duty at the time, Broadbent said.
She heard one ranger tell a group of chaperones there were too many children in the water and that "all eyes were needed on deck."
Broadbent said the group stayed put, in the shade.
"That's the part that breaks my heart, because as a mom, I'm sending my child to a program. I demand them to be on top of it," she said.
The swimming pond received an upgrade in 2002, a system that moves water from the Buffalo River into a treatment plant, where the water is filtered and treated with chemicals before released back into the pond.
Even with the system, the pond water is murky.
Broadbent said park employees typically announce safety rules hourly, advising adults that they should be in the water or on the sand, depending on the age of the children they're supervising, and that they shouldn't be on their phone or reading a book while doing so.
On Wednesday, when it started to become clear that a child was missing, Broadbent said employees responded by getting on a megaphone and calling for the girl.
In the video she captured, the employee can be heard saying "Grace Bettie. I'm looking for Grace Bettie. Can you come up to the lifeguard stand?"
The pool was also cleared for a safety check.
Broadbent said rangers searched nearby trails first, before lifeguards went into the water.
Another witness, Wendy Peterson, corroborated that statement.
She said just before the trail search, she saw a small child waving at an adult, saying her friend was in the water.
Peterson said she's in the habit of watching clocks because her own children have seizure disorders, and she paid close attention to the timing of the response to the missing child.
"Not one person entered the water for at least 17 minutes. I'm telling you, 17 minutes minimum," Peterson said.
When lifeguards went in, she said it took just a few minutes to locate the girl's body.
"I knew there was no chance, but maybe there would have been a chance if they had just went into the water (sooner)," she said.
Could Grace have been saved?
Both women said they don't want to cast blame on the youth program or the park, because accidents happen, but both believe certain aspects of the activity and the response should have been handled differently.
"You don't lose oxygen on the trails. Why are they checking the trails and the bathrooms? You can breathe there," Peterson said.
Broadbent took a photo of her daughter and a friend in the deeper end, with a time stamp of 3:43 p.m., about seven minutes before the pool was cleared.
She said in the photo frame, she could just make out the image of Grace Bettie. She's certain it was her, because she was right there when the girl's body was pulled from the water.
At some point in that short period of time, Grace slipped under.
Peterson doesn't know if any different action could have made a difference, "but it could have and that mom deserves somebody to try and get her kid," she said.
Clay County authorities said they couldn't comment on the incident because it's under investigation and Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger referred questions to the city manager's office.
In a statement, the city offered its "heartfelt sympathies to the family and friends" of the child.
It said Moorhead Public School district would offer grief counseling for students and The City of Moorhead has also arranged grief counseling services for Summer Youth Program mentors who were part of the program activities.
Broadbent said she hopes Grace Bettie and her family will have a voice in tragic situation.
"And if they don't I'd be more than happy to stand up for them, because i don't think it was an accident that needed to happen," she said.