No lifejacket, lack of supervision led to 2010 drowning at Westwood Lake

NANAIMO: Coroner ruled drowning death of seven-year-old Cedar girl an accident.

A B.C. Coroner concluded that failure to wear a life-jacket and a lack of direct supervision were contributing factors in the drowning death of a seven-year-old girl from Cedar two years ago.

Isabelle Paige Mernickle-Holmgren drowned at Westwood Lake in August 2010 while attending a camp known as the Cedar Fun Zone, part of a recreation program provided through the Cedar School and Community Enhancement Society and School District 68.

Mernickle-Holmgren  was one of 15 children aged six to 12 being supervised that day by two adults and three younger leaders in training, who were learning how to become camp leaders.

Three city lifeguards were also on duty, as well as three game leaders, teens aged 15 to 17 responsible for overseeing children who wished to participate in games.

The visit to Westwood was part of a special outing for the camp, which usually held activities at the community elementary school.

In a report submitted by B.C. Coroner Adele Lambert, the two camp leaders had not made a formal plan regarding the supervision of the children while at the lake, instead relying on camp leaders to perform a head count every 15 to 20 minutes in addition to supervision provided by leaders in training and lifeguards.

According to the report, Mernickle-Holmgren was  not an experienced swimmer and had just learned how to swim the summer before in the pool at her home, often using a snorkel and mask. Her mother, who dropped her off at Westwood Lake that day, had given her a life-jacket to wear while at the lake and had instructed her to keep it on whenever near the water, which she did while playing a basketball game with camp leaders and six other children on a raft anchored in the lake. Mernickle-Holmgren  had been spotted several times leaving the raft and making her way back to the beach, always with her life-jacket on.

She was last seen alive less than a metre from shore by a camp leader on the raft, who had done a head count just minutes before. She was not wearing her life-jacket, mask or snorkel.

The report said by that time, estimated to be around 2 p.m., the beach had become busy as the temperature neared 30 C. Lifeguard reports say at 1 p.m. 85 people were in the water while 89 were on the beach.

At 2:14 p.m., a tourist found Mernickle-Holmgren on the lake bottom in about 1.5 metres of water. She was wearing her diving mask, which was full of water, and she had the snorkel in her mouth. She was not wearing a life-jacket.

She was carried out of the water and handed to a lifeguard and life-saving efforts started immediately. She was then transferred to the care of paramedics and transported to the hospital but did not respond to treatment. She was pronounced dead at 3:02 p.m.

Suzanne Samborski, senior manager of recreation at the City of Nanaimo, said an immediate aquatic incident review was launched, as well as an invitation for the Lifesaving Society to provide further water safety measures and education.

In February 2011, a final report on the accident made 22 recommendations ranging from issues related to signage, scheduling, training, supervision and public education.

“With respect to the recommendations, a lot of it we were already doing,” she said, adding that recommendations to install a public address system and ropes signalling steep drop-offs were deemed unnecessary. Lifeguards already use megaphones at Westwood Lake, and there are no sudden changes of depth in the water.

Recommendations the city implemented immediately were to ensure groups with children check in with lifeguards, erect more signage citing dangers that can occur near or in the water, and to colour-code depth markers.

The Lifesaving Society recommended children who are non-swimmers be accompanied by a guardian responsible for their direct supervision with the recommended ratio of non-swimmers to each guardian is a maximum a four non-swimmers to one guardian. The ratio increases to one guardian per eight non-swimmers if life-jackets are worn.

“We’re doing all we can to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Samborski.

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