One child still missing in deadly St. Paul park landslide

Gathering at the scene
A small group of people who said they were relatives off a 4th grade student missing in a St. Paul landslide gathered at barricades near the scene Thursday morning.
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.

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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.

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He described Mohamed as a nice, friendly boy. "Everyone says good things about him," Bah said.

"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.

Light rain falls on emergency crews
As light rain falls, emergency crews work in shifts to secure the area around a deadly rockslide in Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul, Minn., on May 22, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

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.

The fossil grounds at Lilydale Park will be closed at least temporarily, said Matt Saam, director of public works and parks for the city of West 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.

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 ..." Saam 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.

DANGEROUS AREA

The bluffs and caves on St. Paul's West Side have been in the news before.

After a big flood in 1965, many condemned homes along the flood plain on St. Paul's West Side were bulldozed and the debris pushed into the Wabasha Street Caves. Some of them are chock-full of sharp debris, including wood that cavers in the years since have used to build fires to combat the cool temperatures.

Geologist and University of Minnesota doctoral student Greg Brick says those fires use up all the oxygen in any given spot. Areas of carbon monoxide can persist, even days after the fire dies. An explorer might not realize he or she is in trouble until it's too late, especially given how hard it is to climb over the debris to get back out. In 2004, three teenagers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the caves.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the students who was killed as Hay Sem. His correct name is Haysem Sani.