The Southern Nevada Health District is facing some tough questions about its oversight of water park safety. The Health District licenses and inspects public pools and water parks, but some major gaps have surfaced in how it handled Cowabunga Bay before and after a local boy suffered a non-fatal drowning.
The health district has a huge job and oversees thousands of local businesses, always with limited resources.
Its handling of the Cowabunga Bay water park and, in particular, an incident in May 2015 in which a boy suffered severe brain damage while underwater in a wave pool is proving difficult for the district to explain.
Before he went into the wave pool at Cowabunga Bay, 6-year-old Leland Gardner was a happy, active boy. By the time a lifeguard pulled him from the bottom of the pool, Leland had suffered catastrophic brain damage.
Although the water park praised its lifeguard for rescuing Leland in seconds, the boy’s family is suing because, it argues, this kind of damage takes much longer to cause.
“He has minimal motor skills. He can’t talk. He can’t eat. He’s fed through what’s called a GI tube,” said Gardner family attorney Samuel Mirkovich.
A central issue in the family’s lawsuit is whether Cowabunga Bay had enough lifeguards on duty at the wave pool. In order to obtain a license to open in 2014, the park proposed using six lifeguards at the wave pool. The Health District rejected the proposal, because the wave pool is too big and holds too many people. District officials insisted on a minimum of 17 lifeguards.
“There were no exceptions. Unfortunately, what Cowabunga Bay did was, upon opening, it immediately went back to operating with the five to seven lifeguards it initially wanted,” Mirkovich said.
In a sworn deposition, the water park’s general manager admits the wave pool never had 17 lifeguards on duty.
“You did not operate with 17, correct?” Gardner family attorney Don Campbell asked in the deposition.
“That’s correct,” Cowabunga Bay General Manager Shane Huish replied.
“That’s because you made the decision not to comply with the law, correct?” Campbell asked.
“That’s correct,” Huish answered.
The day Leland Gardner suffered brain damage, the wave pool fell way short of 17. Staffing records show only three lifeguards were working the wave pool.
The I-Team asked the Southern Nevada Health District about Cowabunga Bay’s lack of compliance.
“From 2014 to 2016, they operated with 17 lifeguards per the Nevada Administrative Code,” said Southern Nevada Health District Chief Environmental Health Officer Jackie Reszetar.
When asked if the health district knew if Cowabunga Bay ever had 17 lifeguards on duty, Reszetar replied, “Yes, they had 17 lifeguards on duty, as far as we know.”
Reszetar, however, couldn’t possibly know if the water park was in compliance, because, until Leland Gardner’s drowning, there had never been an inspection.
Reszetar told the I-Team there was an inspection, but produced no record to support that claim. Although it had received anonymous complaints about lifeguard staffing, the Health District did not pay its first visit to Cowabunga Bay until two days after Leland was pulled from the wave pool.
“We were notified via the news. We heard on the news, so we went out on the 29th (of May),” Reszetar said
Inspectors found there weren’t enough lifeguards assigned to work on the 29th of May. Almost two weeks later, on June 9th, they made a second visit. They found fewer than half of the required lifeguards at the wave pool. The Health District issued a citation of sorts.
“The only fine we received was the verified complaint fee of $118. So, we charged them $118,” said Reszeter.
Whatever investigation the Southern Nevada Health District may have conducted, one thing it never asked for is the number of lifeguards who were working on the day Leland Gardner was hurt. The I-Team provided the health district with a copy of the employee staffing for that day.
Reszetar admitted the Health District does not know how many lifeguards Cowabunga Bay had on staff that day, and that no one from the Health District asked for that information.
The Health District told the I-Team late Monday it inspected the water park once before in 2014, before the park opened. That inspection wouldn’t reveal much about how many lifeguards are on duty, or why the health district never asked how many lifeguards were working the day of the incident.
The same officials who twice caught Cowabunga Bay in violation of the lifeguard law decided two months ago to give the water park a variance. The district now agrees that having fewer lifeguards improves public safety.
The I-Team will have more on that in the days ahead.