As two children suffocated in mud after a landslide in a St. Paul park last month, emergency responders struggled to pinpoint their location and locate access the site, transcripts of two 911 calls show.
The St. Paul Police Department made the transcripts available to MPR News Wednesday. They capture efforts by about six adults chaperoning a field trip in Lilydale Regional Park as they attempt to assess the situation and communicate with officials after a 30- to 40-feet bluff collapsed, killing two children and injuring two others. Two fourth-grade classes, about 40 children in all, were visiting the 636-acre park near the Mississippi River to hunt for fossils.
"We've fallen down an avalanche, and we're, we need an ambulance," the first, unidentified caller tells the 911 operator moments into the call, according to the transcript.
Then, when the operator asks the female caller where exactly she is in the park, the woman struggles to respond. She repeatedly asks the operator to call the students' school -- Peter Hobart Elementary in St Louis Park -- and have someone there describe where the class is. The 911 operator continues to ask the woman questions like "When you're facing the river from that parking lot... did you go left or did you go right?"
The female caller tries to answer the 911 operator's questions while also speaking to other people on the scene. She directs someone to start counting the children, and instructs another person to "dig around" to look for students. At one point she tries to calm a partially buried child, saying "we're digging you out... you're fine... you're alive."
The woman stays on the phone as she runs to a nearby park entrance blocked by chained gate chained and surrounded by tall grasses. She tells the 911 operator she hears sirens, but says, "Oh my God, I think they are going away from where... I am.... Make them stop!" The call ends as the woman gets the attention of the arriving emergency responders and asks "Can you break this chain! Can you break this chain and come in this way!"
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• Story: Park to remain closed after fatal landslide
• Story: School, community copes with tragedy
• Story: Landslide raises questions about bluff's safety
• Interview: What caused the Lilydale landslide?
In the first minutes after the landslide there was also uncertainty over how many children might have been buried beneath the mud.
"As far as I can tell, only one was buried but we're digging, we're looking," the first caller says before she heads uphill to meet the emergency responders.
"We have two kids that are missing now," a second 911 caller tells an operator just before she reports hearing sirens.
The first police officers and firefighters who reached the scene of the landslide dug with their bare hands and shovels as water flowed down from above, filling the holes in the collapsed hill. Emergency responders quickly found themselves in water up to their waists. Officials later said recent rains had weakened the cliff, causing it to fall on the children. One firefighter was struck on the head with a rock.
After an hour of searching, emergency responders found 9-year-old Haysem Sani dead. They had to break off their search as the collapsed hill became increasingly unstable. The next day they found 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana.
The city of St. Paul has since hired a civil engineering firm to examine the site of the collapse and determine its cause. The city temporarily closed the fossil grounds to the public.