I-Team: Accident raises questions about water park staffing

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It’s summertime at Cowabunga Bay, a massive and popular water park filled with slides, rides, and a sprawling 33,000-square-foot wave pool where bathers and floaters get jostled, splashed and dunked by waves as high as four feet.

Six-year-old Leland Gardner was thrilled to visit the park with a classmate and the other boy’s father on May 27, 2015.

By all accounts, Leland was a bundle of energy who couldn’t wait to visit the park. But, something went terribly wrong, and Leland’s life changed forever.

“They were all together in the shallow end of the wave pool,” said Gardner family attorney Samuel Mirkovich. “When the waves started to go, Leland was knocked off his tube, and we believe went under, and he was under for minutes.”

By the time Leland’s near-lifeless body was pulled from the water by a lifeguard, he was about 100 yards away, in the deep end of the pool.

He had no pulse, but CPR brought him back, and the incident was characterized as a successful rescue.

One year later, Leland, now 7-years-old, is unable to do much of anything.

“Leland suffered a catastrophic brain injury. He has minimal motor skills. He can’t talk. He can’t eat. He’s fed through what’s called a G.I. tube. He is bathed. He wears diapers. He is completely cared for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Mirkovich said.

For the Gardner family, everything has changed. Leland’s parents were both law enforcement professionals, but his mother had to quit her job to care for the boy full-time.

“Financially, it’s been very tough on the family,” said Leland’s grandmother Susan Wohlbrandt. “Physically, my daughter has to lift him all the time, because he can’t walk, and he can’t sit up by himself and talk. You have to move him, so he doesn’t get bedsores every two hours. So, they’re lifting him in and out of bed, in and out of chairs, in and out of cars, up and down the stairs, a rotation.”

She says the situation has been emotionally difficult for Leland’s family. The family remains optimistic Leland will regain at least some functions as time goes by, but they’re also angry after learning what did and did not happen at Cowabunga Bay.

“They’ve said that safety is their number one priority. The response to this was exemplary,” Mirkovich said. “Unfortunately, what they have not told everyone is that they were chronically understaffed in terms of lifeguards, and when this happened, there were only three lifeguards for a 33,000-square-foot wave pool when state law required 17.”

When Cowabunga Bay first applied to the Southern Nevada Health District for a permit to open, the company proposed staffing the wave pool with approximately six lifeguards per shift. The district rejected that proposal. The wave pool, which can hold up to 2,600 people at a time, is too large for six lifeguards, so the district insisted there should be 17 lifeguards at all times, and the company agreed. In order to get a license to open, the general manager formally submitted a grid showing where the 17 would be stationed.

“Unfortunately, what Cowabunga Bay did was, upon opening, it immediately went back to operating with five to seven lifeguards it initially wanted,” Mirkovich said. “We know that by reviewing their staffing numbers, the number of lifeguards there.”

Internal records show on the day Leland was underwater, the park had five lifeguard slots slated for the wave pool, but only three were actually filled. In a sworn deposition, the park’s general manager Shane Huish was asked about what the law required and what he actually provided.

“The required number of lifeguards for the wave pool was 17, correct?” attorney Don Campbell asked.

“Correct,” Huish answered.

“By law, correct?” Campbell asked.

“Correct,” Huish replied.

“But, you did not operate with 17, correct?” Campbell said.

“That’s correct,” Huish said.

Cowabunga Bay declined to appear on camera because of pending litigation, but told the I-Team in a written statement that all of its employees were shaken by what happened to Leland. They send him their best wishes, but they say their safety procedures worked that day. 

Two months ago, Cowabunga Bay returned to the health district and asked for a variance: permission to use the same lifeguard plan it preferred from the beginning. The health district granted it, and no one even mentioned Leland Gardner.

The company told the I-Team the district’s previous lifeguard standard was “behind the times,” and that having fewer lifeguards actually increases public safety.

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