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Part of Lilydale Park to remain closed after fatal mudslide

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Relatives return to cars
Relatives of the fourth grade student whose body was found in Lilydale Regional Park on Thursday after a landslide the day before buried and killed him return to their cars.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Lilydale Park's fossil grounds will remain closed for investigation after two children died in an apparent landslide on a fossil hunting school field trip Wednesday. Two others were injured when the ground gave way beneath the fourth graders in the St. Paul park. 

The student who was found dead yesterday has been identified as nine-year-old Haysem Sani. 

On Thursday, the boy who had been missing at the site of a landslide at Lilydale Park in St. Paul was found dead, authorities said. The boy was found less than 30 minutes after crews resumed their search at 9:30 a.m. 

"The outcome was not what we had hoped for, but in the big picture, nobody else was injured and the family now has closure on that part of this incident," said St. Paul Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith.

MORE COVERAGE
• Photos: The deadly Lilydale landeslide
• 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?

Family members identified the boy found Thursday as 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana. The boy's uncle, Mohamed Bah, fought back tears as he talked to reporters before authorities announced they had found him.

He described Mohamed as a nice, friendly boy. "Everyone says good things about him," Bah said. "He was very good. He memorized the Koran. He was taught very well how to do things."

Bah said he'd last seen the boy at a celebration earlier this month among Minnesotan's Guinean community, and he said aunts, uncles and the boy's parents were among those waiting for word.

Just before noon, though, searchers found Mohammed buried in the mud, sand and rock at the base of the cliff. Wails of grief pealed through the trees in Lilydale Park.

Landslide victim's father
Lacine Fofana, the father of 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana, who was killed in the landslide at Lilydale Regional Park, is greeted during a gathering of family and friends at Fofana's home in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, May 23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"Rescuers of course wish they could have done more," St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said.

One of the rescued children was released from the hospital, and the other remained in serious condition at Regions Hospital.

The incident happened Wednesday afternoon during a Peter Hobart Elementary School field trip at the park known for fossil hunting. Counselors were on hand Thursday for students, parents and staff as they coped with the tragedy.

The students were walking in the park to go fossil hunting when the ground, which was saturated by recent rains, gave way, authorities said. The students fell into what became a hole, and the hillside collapsed on top of them, Zaccard said.

One student suffered a minor injury, and another was partially buried and seriously injured.  Haysem and Mohammed were completely buried said Smith. He said the collapse continued, even after rescuers rushed to the scene.

Mohamed Fofana
Mohamed Fofana was one of two fourth-graders killed in the landslide at Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
Courtesy of Fofana family

Rescuers dug with hands and shovels at first, but Smith said it grew too dangerous.

"We ended up bringing hose lines from the top side, and what we call hydraulic excavation, basically moving tons and tons of sand out of the fossil pit area. It was the safest way of removing the soil," Smith said.

But searchers could not find Mohamed. They abandoned the search late Wednesday night and decided to wait for better light and drier conditions. They even brought in a pair of Department of Natural Resources geologists Thursday morning to assess the soil conditions and the safety of digging more. 

The St. Paul Fire Department released this photo of the collapse area Thursday.

Media have inquired and attached is a photo of the collapse location. twitter.com/StPaulFireDept...

— Saint Paul Fire Dept (@StPaulFireDept) May 23, 2013

The fossil grounds at Lilydale Park will be closed at least temporarily, said Mike Hahm, director of parks and recreation for the city of St. Paul, said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

"We've taken immediate steps to cancel the permits that were in place for the fossil grounds for a minimum of two weeks, but really for an indefinite period moving forward," Saam said.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the accident came as a surprise.

"I think we need to remind ourselves, this is a tragedy," Coleman said Thursday. "This was not something that was in any way foreseen or that we had any reason to suspect that these children were going to face the situation that they faced."

SAFETY QUESTIONS

School groups and individuals interested in hunting for fossils at Lilydale Park must obtain a permit from the St. Paul Parks Department. A warning on the park's website says "some of the conditions and locations within the Lilydale Regional Park area are hazardous." Last year, 417 permits were issued for the area, mostly for schools and other educational groups.

Community gathering
Family and friends of Mohamed Fofana, the 10-year-old who was killed in the landslide at Lilydale Regional Park, gather at Fofana's home in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, May 23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Parks officials were meeting Thursday morning and said they would have more information about safety concerns at the park.

"This type of accident is really unprecedented within our park system ..." Hahm said. "Specifically in Lilydale Regional Park, there have been no reported accidents or injuries within the past five years that have resulted in a claim against the city in the past five years."

Parks spokesman Brad Meyer said although some construction work is taking place in the park, the incident happened away from that work.

It wasn't immediately clear if anyone is responsible for checking conditions at the park ahead of school trips to ensure safety.

Peggy Lynch, executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County, said she hoped officials wouldn't close the trails permanently.

"I've hiked that park and hiked up and down that trail. I don't think there's any problem with it, but because of all the rain, it just couldn't hold up."

Lynch said the bluffs are fragile, noting that there are rules requiring setbacks for any buildings. Lynch said she wasn't aware of any regular safety checks of the park.

"This field trip was probably planned for a year and no one realized what could happen because of all the rain we've had," she said.

Hundreds of school groups have visited Lilydale over the years. Harvey Thorleifson, director of the Minnesota Geological Survey, has led groups at Lilydale many times over the years and said he's seen evidence of landslides at the park. 

"I think what we're all anxious to learn today is whether the tragic event was an extraordinary slope failure or whether it's the sort of thing that happens frequently, but tragically in this case," he said. "A normal, frequently occurring event may have coincided with the presence of a group, so its not yet clarified how unusual the slope failure was."

Thorleifson said those who visit the park hope authorities will be able to provide more details about the incident to prevent it from happening again.

The map below shows the approximate location of Wednesday's landslide.