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How Mayor Coleman's City Hall Tried to Spin the Deaths of Two Children

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UPDATE: In January 2015, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed yet another geologist disagreed with St. Paul's arguments that the landslide that killed Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani was natural and unforeseeable.

For decades kids have come to St. Paul's Lilydale Park, drawn by the hunt for prehistoric fossils.

The 384-acre park sits across the Mississippi River from downtown, its distinctive bluffs rising from the floodplain. A brick mining operation, closed since the 1970s, left gorged, exposed hillsides, along with fossils for the taking.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2013, a group of fourth graders from Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park climbed trails up the bluff, in eager search of natural wonders.

Accounts from that afternoon are sketchy. Some say there was a rumbling. All that is certain is that a four-story ravine gave way, sending tons of shale, sand, trees, and water tumbling down.

Two boys disappeared almost immediately, buried in the rubble. The body of one was found hours later. His classmate was not retrieved until the following day.

Mohamed Fofana (left) and Haysem Sani were buried under tons of shale, sand, trees, and water

Mohamed Fofana (left) and Haysem Sani were buried under tons of shale, sand, trees, and water

The sweet faces of Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani soon appeared on TV screens and in newspapers across the world. Hundreds came to memorial gatherings. Gov. Mark Dayton visited with students to share their grief.

In St. Paul, sympathy went out to the boys and their families, recently arrived immigrants from Africa. The city's thoughts were also with the police and firefighters who gave their all in a dangerous, futile effort.

Residents gave the administration of Mayor Chris Coleman the benefit of the doubt. Privately, some even suspected these outsiders of taking foolish risks to allow the tragedy to happen.

The ordeal would soon fade from consciousness. The geology and hydrology might eventually be figured out. But in the meantime, the deaths would be chalked up to fate, bad timing, and the occasional cruel streak of Mother Nature.

That, at least, was the message carefully choreographed by St. Paul officials. While St. Louis Park school leaders bumbled and crumbled under public heat, Coleman privately instructed staff to "pivot" attention away from unfavorable areas of discussion.

From the first press conference, St. Paul was always on message. City officials insisted the collapse was "unprecedented" and unconnected to construction projects in the area. When questions appeared in the media, St. Paul quickly commissioned nearly $200,000 worth of "independent investigations" to add authoritative cover to its story line: This tragedy couldn't possibly have been foreseen.

Yet internal documents show the city not only ignored repeated warnings of a landslide. It may have contributed the straw that broke Mother Nature's back.

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A Chaotic Rescue

Stiff questioning should have commenced in the aftermath of May 22, 2013. The mayor's small army of PR staff regularly sent out briefings describing heroic efforts to save the children. While this was no doubt true, less flattering elements were omitted from the storyline.

Transcripts of 911 calls speak a tale of confusion, misinformation, and the loss of precious time in the race to rescue those buried under sand and rock. According to police radio tapes, rescue teams burned 20 minutes in chaos before finally reaching the accident site.

The first call came at 1:15 p.m. from the school group, reporting an "avalanche" and seeking emergency help for 20 kids. Emotion and confusion fill the conversation between caller and dispatcher, who apparently had little knowledge of Lilydale Park.

"Are you by the pavilion?" the dispatcher asks, likely referring to another park, since Lilydale has no such structure.

The unnamed caller first places the accident up the hill "in the hiking area where people hunt for fossils." Then she fairly accurately attempts to describe her location near a gate atop a switch-back trail near Cherokee Heights and Annapolis Street.

But this appears to have no meaning to the dispatcher. "What's, what's the closest um, ah site that you can see, like ah, like a monument or anything like that?... Are you, are you by the bridge yet?"

Mayor Chris Coleman made sure an "independent investigation" fit the city's spin

Mayor Chris Coleman made sure an "independent investigation" fit the city's spin

There was no bridge near the caller's location.

The confusion continues when the dispatcher sends rescue teams to the corner of Water and Joy Street -- a long discontinued street address. The location is well down the hill near the Mississippi River -- nearly a mile from the bluff collapse.

The transcript suggests growing frustration and swearing on both ends as the caller hears sirens head in the wrong direction. "I hear them coming the other direction," she says. "Make them stop."

Rescuers eventually reach a gate on Highway 13, about 250 yards from the accident site. But the gate is locked; they don't have a key. Another call describes rescuers frantically throwing shovels and equipment over the bluff in an attempt to get help to the buried.

The park's unusual, undeveloped, and sometimes difficult terrain adds to the troubles. Later, the city will fail to mention that 911 calls to Lilydale have been problematic for years, and that St. Paul did little to address them.

In the weeks to come, Emergency Management Director Rick Larkin will passionately email colleagues asking for a complete review of police, fire, and emergency procedures to learn from the city's mistakes.

There is no record of it ever occurring. The only email response comes from Parks Director Michael Hahm, saying the review should wait until after a city-commissioned investigation.

A city culvert destabilized the hillside

A city culvert destabilized the hillside

And that investigation will be designed from the outset to avoid unsettling questions.

A History Of 911 Troubles

Two weeks prior to the landslide, I had a foreboding experience barely 100 yards from where Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani died.

Two incoherent and apparently intoxicated adults, with young children in tow, were passed out on a trail. I called 911. After 15 minutes of trying to explain the location to a confused operator, I rode my bicycle a half-mile down the hill to the same Water and Joy Street intersection, where I escorted police and EMTs back to the site.

I later described the 911 problems on the Friends of Lilydale Facebook page. City Councilman Dave Thune responded, offering assurances of dispatch improvements. Our volunteer group had already informed Hahm and park planner Alice Messer of repeated 911 problems that had stretched nearly a decade.

This history was also relayed to Donald Lewis, a former Hamline Law School dean hired to lead the city's investigation. But Lewis seemed uninterested. The scope of his probe, which cost $136,000, was carefully circumscribed by City Hall.

Lewis was instead charged with an exercise in governmentese, hired to probe the "internal processes, procedures, and communications" about soil erosion hazards before the deaths. The contract specifically ruled out any evaluation of city employees, any determination of the cause of the incident, or any inquiry into the adequacy of emergency response.

In other words, it seemed perfectly contained to avoid any blame falling to the city.

Also omitted were interviews with firefighters, police, and 911 personnel -- the very people who could say what went wrong that day, and how to prevent it from happening again.

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A Tale Of Money Over Safety

My obsession with uncovering the truth about the two boys' deaths was fueled in part by 14 years as a volunteer with Friends of Lilydale, a citizen group that promotes nature hikes, fishing, and trail cleanups.

For most of those years we had a positive relationship with the city, planning improvements while aiming to keep Lilydale's urban wilderness feel. In 2008, we were given their first-ever Citizen Group of the Year award. Somewhere I have a group photo with Mayor Coleman, who lives near the park and occasionally jogs through its woods.

But things changed when Coleman appointed Hahm as director of Parks and Recreation in 2008. Priorities began to seem based on what would bring in big-dollar grants from the Met Council and the Minnesota Legacy fund. Lost were discussions of low-cost, low-impact projects, like trail signs warning of dangerous or sensitive places.

The shift was evident in a 2009 consultant's report, which described the eroding bluffline as a top concern. The report called for a full study of ravines and walls of old clay pit mines, and how to best control erosion.

The study was never done.

Three years later, residents again pitched the idea at a public hearing. The study would have cost around $15,000. But St. Paul claimed it didn't have the money.

In the meantime, it was spending roughly $5 million for a new road and parking lots in Lilydale, with millions more planned for buildings and other development.

All while the bluff was visibly eroding.

A 2011 collapse took down most of a hillside just 50 yards from where Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani died. Photos taken by a Parks staffer show foot-deep mud oozing down the hill.

The landslide fortuitously happened late at night. No one was injured.

Still, Coleman, Hahm, and Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer would all claim two years later that there were never any warning signs.

"There is no indication prior to this happening that this sort of thing could have occurred," Hahm said at a press conference the day after the two boys' deaths.

Yet Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith had taken the mic before Hahm. He depicted obstacles faced by first responders, describing "copious amounts of water coming off down the shale rock on the south precipice, basically creating a river that we had to divert to continue operations."

The source of that river was puzzling. While it had rained steadily in the days prior, the cumulative drizzle that day totaled an underwhelming .13 inches.

Smith's account would soon be seconded by reports of rescuers digging holes in the sand, trying to find the buried boys, only to see the holes quickly fill with water.

A River Runs Through It

Curiosity led me to the accident site a few days later. A bright orange snowfence, which remains to this day, blocked access from the top of the bluff. So I walked across the recently rebuilt Cherokee Boulevard and stumbled onto a surprise.

There, in a formerly overgrown gully that likely hadn't been touched in a half-century, was now a clear-cut, rock-lined culvert. The city had reengineered a 60-inch storm sewer to "unplug" and more efficiently carry water from the West Side, West St. Paul, and Mendota Heights down the bluff into Lilydale.

The water emptied into the very ravine where Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani were buried alive.

St. Paul had already contracted with Northern Technologies Inc. (NTI) to analyze the bluff area. NTI would eventually admit that storm water may have been a factor, but dismissed it as "unlikely" based on its estimate of the distance across the ravine and velocity of water on May 22, 2013.

There is no evidence the company ever tested to see how fast or far water may have shot across the ravine that fateful day.

NTI's report backed the city's official line. At a press conference the day after the tragedy, Coleman was asked if construction above the bluff had anything to do with the collapse.

"There was no indication at all that any of the activity that was done in the park really was connected at all to this incident," he said. "There was some work on a drainage system, but that was not directly impacting this area at all."

A Scientist Begs To Differ

Freedom of Information Act requests are a curious thing. They often involve a dance between the petitioner and the governmental body grudgingly required to share information about itself. Obfuscation is customary. Yet once in a while a gem will slip through.

Such was the case of a file that appeared to be nothing more than a response to a meeting invitation from Minnesota DNR geologist Carrie Jennings. Included were attachments that candidly ripped holes in the city explanations.

Jennings worked alongside rescue personnel in the aftermath of the landslide. She noticed dry sand on the top of the pile, which countered the idea that only rain-soaked topsoil had thundered down on the kids.

She further cited a class photo taken prior to the accident. It showed the Peter Hobart students posing before a small waterfall. Behind them were fractures in the bedrock extending well down the hill.

To the scientific eye, it was this unnatural breakdown of rock that had brought the hillside down on the children. These fractures resulted from a weakened structure of the hill. The rock could no longer sustain the weight of the bluff above it. When it finally cracked, everything fell.

The cause? Jennings suspected the Cherokee Avenue storm-water project.

She found broken culvert segments pushed down the hill onto the accident site, suggesting a great deal of water pressure. A photo of a remaining stormwater pipe showed it "aimed directly at the rock and sediment face that failed."

She would go on to contradict any suggestion that Mohamed and Haysem had been killed by a natural disaster.

"I disagree," she wrote. "My hypothesis is that water from the culvert undermined the rock ledge that then collapsed, sending dry material down onto the children."

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You Get What You Pay For

Though St. Paul spent nearly $200,000 on "independent" investigations, no one bothered to interview the DNR geologist. Lewis spent more time describing the 2011 collapse, arguing that city staff could not be expected to see it as a warning sign.

Curiously, he minimized even more important warnings to come.

A year before the accident, forester Scott Kruse, who led ice-climbing groups into the same ravine, sent emails and photos to Parks and Recreation leaders warning of a bluff collapse "in the next year or two."

That prediction was passed on by supervisor Cy Kosel to Lilydale planner Alice Messer, asking if she had talked to engineers about finding ways to minimize erosion.

A hurriedly arranged tour of the site ended abruptly when Parks supervisor Gary Korum fell in mud. (Lewis would later press Korum to reconsider whether the hike had actually happened earlier, in connection with the 2011 mudslide at another location. Korum demurred.)

Messer was concerned enough to send a note to her supervisor, Jody Martinez. "It does seem like the time to address the issue" in conjunction with the storm-water project, she wrote.

But Messer added: "Of course I have NO MONEY in the Cherokee Regional Trail project to put towards this work...." The email trail goes dead at that point. There is no more evidence the city investigated ways to protect the vulnerable bluff from their own project.

Whether this sealed the fates of Mohamed and Haysem may be argued. But even city leaders have since acknowledged a major problem with storm-water runoff in the area.

On September 5, 2013, the very day that Lewis and Coleman stood before cameras to exonerate the city, Messer sent another email to Martinez. She spoke of a conversation she had with a city engineer about damage from storm water.

"I told him I was concerned about the larger issue of controlling the amount of water entering the 60-inch pipe and how it is released down the bluff," wrote Messer. She pushed for a new study to find solutions.

Later that month, Parks administrator Cy Kosel wrote to Dakota County and other regional "partners," seeking expertise and financial help to make Lilydale safer. In his opening pitch, Kosel openly admitted that the landslide was "directly related to storm water in combination with unstable bluff soils."

The Show Must Go On

By this point, Lewis and Coleman had already absolved the city. Coleman would charmingly describe to press his ongoing support for youth experiences in the natural world, pointing to his recent camping trip with a group of teens to Glacier National Park.

The spin was clear behind the scenes. At one point, City Attorney Sara Grewing delivered a briefing in the mayor's office, showing how the city's investigations could be used to divert media attention.

"Investigations did not address anything to do with our response to the incident," she instructed officials to say in a PowerPoint presentation. "As such, we are saying 'the NTI report concluded the slide was a natural occurrence, having nothing to do with any manmade activity.'"

Meanwhile, St. Paul closed the bluffs and trails to school kids and residents. They have yet to reopen.

Peter Hobart parents seeking answers found they would need to do so the American way -- by hiring lawyers. The matter went to mediation under retired Hennepin County Judge Alan Oleisky. St. Paul officials have refused to disclose his findings despite repeated public information requests.

Last January, the city reached settlements with the families of Mohamed Fofana, Haysem Sani, and a third injured child.

The $1 million total payout was the largest in St. Paul history. But the city insisted on a confidentiality agreement, barring either side from discussing the boys' deaths. At least one more lawsuit by another injured St. Louis Park student is pending. A second suit by student Lucas Lee was settled for $20,000 last month.

In the meantime, the Coleman administration continues to market St. Paul as "America's Most Livable City."