FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Myron Dukes took his two children and another child to check out the fountains and pools at the park across the street because their hotel pool was closed and they wanted a break from the Texas heat.
Within minutes, all four drowned in a swirling, decorative pool where “no swimming” signs were posted. Authorities said powerful suction apparently pulled the victims to the bottom of the 9-foot pool at the Fort Worth Water Gardens.
Witness accounts of the accident varied, but 8-year-old Lauren Dukes apparently jumped or slipped into the water. Her 11-year-old friend, Juantrice Deadmon, tried to reach in and help her, but fell in. The father and her brother, 13-year-old Christopher Dukes, then jumped in to try to save the girls.
One witness, Christian Tillis, 14, said he saw the girls slip into the water and tried to help.
“I dived in after them. I felt a little bitty hand, but it slipped out,” he said. “And then I had to get out because I couldn’t breathe.”
The victims were among 120 members of a Baptist Church in Chicago attending a national Sunday school convention. Convention attendees gathered yesterday morning for a prayer vigil.
“Today our city extends our wings to enfold and comfort you,” Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief told the crowd, many of whom held hands and wiped away tears. “We are very, very sorry about your loss.”
About 2,000 people showed up at the vigil to remember the victims.
“There are three children and one adult that are not with us today,” mourner T.B. Boyd III told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “But they are not lost, because we know where they are.
“We will meet together again — some day.”
Although the Water Gardens are not meant for swimming, residents say people often wade in the pools on hot days.
In the pool where the four drowned, water comes down several irregularly spaced steps, creating waterfalls that empty into the pool. The water there is recirculated through a drain at the bottom.
Officials did not know whether the suction was created by the drain or the water coming down. Police Officer Tony Moldanado, one of the first rescuers at the scene, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that when he jumped in, the suction “literally sucked the socks off my feet.”
The youngsters went to the Water Gardens to cool off after marching in a parade at the convention and practicing their drill team routines.
“[Mr. Dukes] said he would take them to the falls, just to put their feet in the water,” said Cleo Deadmon, Juantrice’s grandmother. “I had no idea that it went down that deep.”
Officials said the Water Gardens, which were drained, would remain closed until police finish their investigation.
Before Wednesday, the park’s most serious accident was in 1991, when an 80-foot light pole fell and killed two persons. The city has paid thousands of dollars in claims to visitors injured in falls, the Star-Telegram reported.
Designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the gardens are free to enter and a common refuge from hot Texas days. Each minute, 19,000 gallons of water courses through the garden, according to the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Center.