In the swimming hierarchy of shark, guppy and tadpole, Sean Rothrock ranked firmly on the lower end of the scale, perhaps somewhere between crab and sea urchin. The 21-year-old could float and paddle in the deep end of the Wild Wave Pool at SplashTown, but when the water began to churn, it dragged him under.
Sean's younger brother, Brandon, tried to save him. Sean was flailing violently, and he grabbed his sibling and pulled him beneath the waves. Tiffany Cook, 16, heroically dragged Brandon to safety and swam with him toward the edge of the pool screaming for help.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Jeffrey Dice noticed Sean had sunk and told a lifeguard. But the lifeguard didn't believe him and asked him to go make sure. So Jeffrey dove back in, saw Sean lying unconscious on the pool floor and tried to pull him to the surface. Sean was too heavy, and Jeffrey gave up, swam back to the lifeguard and said yes, someone really is drowning.
Sean had been underwater at least five minutes by the time 16-year-old park visitor Christina Powers finally managed to pull his lifeless body to the surface and drag him to the edge of the pool. His lungs and stomach were filled with water and he wasn't breathing.
Only then did the lifeguards notice him and drag him from the pool, banging his head several times against the tiles on the way.
Several of the professional rescuers looked at his pale body and began crying. "They had kids working as lifeguards," said attorney Michael Engelhart, who recounted the ordeal in a lawsuit filed in 2001 by Sean's parents, whose son miraculously survived his ordeal. "They probably had some sort of certification, but when the shit hit the fan, they didn't react."
Houston's two water parks, SplashTown, off I-45 north, and WaterWorld, an annex of AstroWorld, bill themselves as perfect for kids. "The whole family will enjoy dozens of splashy water adventures," says the SplashTown Web site. But both parks are owned by Six Flags, which hires lifeguards as young as 16. Problems with the parks' lifesaving force have existed for years.
During WaterWorld's grand opening in 1983, a young girl fell into a swimming pool. The girl's mother didn't see her fall and ran screaming to the lifeguards, begging them to find her. They never did. A swimmer noticed her first, but by then the woman's only child had been underwater too long to survive.
"People were furious," said attorney Howard Nations, who negotiated a confidential settlement for the mother and recounted the incident in an interview. "They came up and made statements that the lifeguards weren't doing anything.
"We had testimony that they were much more interested in all the young women running around in their bikinis."
Rescue efforts also haven't been too snappy at other Six Flags water rides. At Arlington's Six Flags Over Texas in 1999, park visitor Wendy Crown observed a raft flip on the Roaring Rapids ride, but was told by the teenage employees not to jump in and save the riders because only the emergency response team could do that. When the team didn't quickly arrive, Crown jumped in anyway. But she and other patrons couldn't rescue everyone. A young mother, Valeria Cartwright, drowned.
Attorney Dwain Dent, who recovered $4 million for Cartwright's family, attributes the accident, in part, to the inexperience of the park's young employees. "We probably wouldn't let our children be driven around by another teen who just received a license to drive a car," he says, "but in these multimillion-dollar parks, the very people we wouldn't allow to drive our own kids have been put in charge of some of the largest and most dangerous equipment imaginable. It's shocking."
AstroWorld's Lynda Baldwin, who oversees employee training, doesn't see a problem with hiring young recruits. "If you are well trained when you are 16, 18 or 30, you are well trained,' she says. "I don't think it's about whether they have taken a high school exam. It's about how well they are trained to do the task."
But safety isn't always as simple as pulling drowning kids from the chlorinated surf. Water-park injury claims culled from local lawsuits show a wide range of potential threats:
" In 2003, a girl on a slide at WaterWorld was descending when the water stopped. She was thrust forward and broke her wrist.
" In 2002, water from the tipping bucket at SplashTown's Treehouse Island hit a young child with so much force that it slammed her to the ground, "causing her to suffer severe permanent injuries."
" The same year, the teeth of Robyn Young's two-year-old toddler were ripped out when he descended a slide.
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" In 2001, a man fell off a tube on a ride at WaterWorld and suffered spinal injuries.
Some accident victims have been luckier than others. For the most part Sean's life returned to normal after he was pulled from the wavepool, although relatives report he may now suffer mild memory problems.
Park officials say injuries are extremely rare on water rides. But Dent argues the parks could prevent more accidents if they paid more to maintain rides and hired qualified employees.
"It's purely profit over safety," he says. "There's no question about it." -- Josh Harkinson