Fatal pool accident――08/05/2006
Under the bright sunny skies, children nationwide are flocking to swimming pools to cool off in the summer heat. At a city-operated pool in Fujimino, Saitama Prefecture, however, the shouts of joy have been silenced by a terrible accident on Monday that killed a second-grade elementary school girl.
The public has gradually learned of the circumstances and slipshod maintenance practices that led to this tragedy. We are appalled by the irresponsible actions of the city, the pool operator and the maintenance company. It is painfully clear that proper procedures and responses could have prevented the little girl's death.
A pump is used to generate a current around this winding watercourse pool. The pool's intake drain, which generates the current, was supposed to have been covered with a two-piece stainless steel grate. But at the time of the accident, one of the barrier sections had fallen off. The girl was sucked into the drain through that opening and trapped further along in the pipe.
Heavy machinery was brought in to break up that section of the pool structure. The work dragged on for six hours. We can only imagine the anguish that her family members felt as they watched the rescue effort and prayed for the girl's survival.
Further shocking is the revelation that a lifeguard on the scene was alerted of the dislodged grate about 10 minutes before the accident.
Despite that warning, the poolside lifeguards failed to take proper measures.
A young boy swimming in the pool handed a lifeguard the dislodged half of the grate, which he found at the bottom of the pool. The guard failed to grasp the potential danger, and merely phoned the pool office to report the situation. An employee arrived at the pool to examine the problem, and then left to obtain tools to reattach the barrier. It was soon after this that the girl was sucked into the drain.
The pump should have been immediately shut down, swimmers ordered out of the pool and guards placed in front of the drain to keep everyone away. Why weren't such common-sense procedures taken? It is unreasonable, though, to pin all the blame on the lifeguards, most of whom were high school students working part time. They received no safety training for their jobs, and had no knowledge of the intake drain or other details of the pool's structure or functions.
Far more responsible is the maintenance company commissioned by Fujimino to manage the pool. Unannounced to city officials, that company had subcontracted the pool's management to a separate company.
The subcontractor had realized that the bolts had become detached from the drain's steel grating, but simply used pieces of wire to secure the barrier back in place. This sloppy practice was continued for several years without being corrected. The intake drain was also not part of the hourly checks performed on the pool premises.
The city also bears grave responsibility for failing to monitor and weed out such shoddy maintenance practices. The pool, after all, is clearly a municipal facility, and we can only wonder why the authorities remained unaware that the bolts had come off the grate for so long.
It has been reported that a city official was present when the pool was drained and cleaned in preparation for its opening for summer season last month. What exactly did that bureaucrat check?
The education ministry had issued a directive that grates covering pool intake drains be firmly fixed in place with bolts or other reliable means. Scrupulous safety vigilance, however, should be a matter of course with or without central government orders.
Municipalities are increasingly opting to farm out the management of public facilities to private sector operators. It must never be forgotten, however, that those municipalities have the duty to oversee the companies that they hire to perform all such jobs.
Reflecting on the dreadful accident in Saitama, all communities must adopt meticulous inspection procedures when commissioning work to private contractors to ensure that no safety aspects are being compromised.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 4(IHT/Asahi: August 5,2006)