Now is vacation time for schoolchildren. But news of a swimming pool accident in the city of Fujimino, Saitama Prefecture, has cast a pall of fear over the holidays for children and parents. An investigation of the July 31 death of a 7-year-old girl in the city’s swimming pool has shed light on the habitual failure of the city government, the city’s board of education and the company managing the facility to ensure safety.

Erika Tomaru, a second grader, died after being sucked into an intake pipe in the circular swimming pool. A protective cover for the mouth of one of three intake sections had come off. An autopsy suggests the girl died almost instantly when her head hit the pipe.

Her death underscored several problems. Although the swimming pool is under the jurisdiction of the city’s board of education, neither the board nor the city government apparently knew how the facility was managed. The city government had entrusted the pool’s management to a building maintenance company, but that company had subcontracted the job out without the approval of the city government.

Although the direct cause of the accident was attributed to shoddy subcontractor work that allowed the protective cover to come off, the board of education erred from the start when it misread a safety notice that the education ministry has issued every year for the past several years.

The notice called for double protection — installation of a protective cover at the mouth of each intake section as well as a grille past the mouth to cover the actual opening of each intake pipe. The education board, however, having misinterpreted the notice, installed two covers that together closed off the mouth of each intake section — but no grilles. Also, at the time the notice was issued this year — in May — the education board failed to forward it to the section that oversaw the operation of the circular swimming pool.

Moreover, no one — not the board of education, the contractor or the subcontractor — had prepared manuals that included specific instructions for dealing with the contingency of an intake mouth cover coming off and endangering swimmers. Thus lifeguards and employees of the subcontractor did not know how to cope with the situation.

Events shortly before the girl was sucked into the intake pipe indicate that her death could have been avoided if the lifeguards had been properly advised.

Around 1:30 p.m., a fourth-grade boy picked up a stainless-steel plate from the bottom of the swimming pool and handed it to a female lifeguard at the poolside. The lifeguard radioed the room where a senior lifeguard was posted: “We have a cover of some kind here, but I don’t know what it is. Can someone come over here soon?”

Two part-timers relayed the information to an employee of the subcontractor. The employee arrived, realized what the cover was for, and then left to get repair tools after telling another lifeguard to warn swimmers away from the intake section. A minute or two later, around 1:40 p.m., Erika was sucked into the intake pipe.

At least four points are clear: (1) Employees of the contractor were not at the scene; (2) lifeguards did not understand the structure of the swimming pool or how water streamed in the pool loop, and they were unaware of the dangers posed by the intake sections; (3) warnings to get out of the pool immediately were not issued to swimmers; and (4) nobody switched off the water-circulation pumps.

Each protective mouth cover is square-shaped, measuring 60 cm on the side. The swimming pool has six such covers. Each cover must be fastened with four bolts, but the police have found that bolts were used in only six of the 24 holes in total. Fastening wire was used in most of the other holes. And in three holes, there were no traces of either a bolt or wire being used. A city government employee who went around to check swimming pools did not notice the use of wire.

It is clear that the girl’s death would not have occurred if officials from the city government, the city board of education and the contractor had been conscious of putting safety first and had followed the prescribed as well as common-sense procedures for ensuring safety.

Schools and municipalities throughout the nation must thoroughly examine the management of their swimming pools to make sure a similar accident does not happen.

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